Linguistic heritage

By Falice Chin

Many students believe that practical field research is only available to graduates. However, the Department of Linguistics offers more than just lectures and labs to undergraduates. Dr. Darin Howe, Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, and an expert on aboriginal languages, leads a group of 15 students in Linguistics 505 to gather first-hand information on the Blackfoot language. They meet regularly with Rachel Ermineskin, a native speaker from the Siksika reserve, to gain more information on Blackfoot, and demonstrated their skills on Wed., Nov. 20.

“I think students get a lot out of it,” said Dr. Howe. “It’s a good example of inquiry-based learning as opposed to the lecturing style. Students are a lot more in charge and responsible for their own learning.”

Each student picks the area they are interested in, such as phonetics, sociolinguistics or semantics. Their duty is to compile a comprehensive set of data, both recorded and written, and post them on a website so that it becomes available to the general public.

“It gives them something to give back to the community,” Dr. Howe added. “People who search through this website, including Blackfoots themselves can learn or find out more about their language.

“We’re hoping that the Blackfoots find it helpful at least as background material, it’s our own effort to preserve the language,” he continued.

Like most aboriginal languages, Blackfoot is losing speakers. Many young natives, including Rachel Ermineskin’s children, are not fluent in the language. The students participating in the research learn the importance of language conservation and cultural diversity.

“This course develops our cultural sensitivity,” said linguistics student Jeff Long. “We get to see the complexity of a language and through that something about the culture as well.”