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Linguistic legacy

Canada Research Chair to continue work supporting Indigenous language revival

By Joshua Goudie

Part of an ongoing series of Gazette stories celebrating researchers who received support as part of a major investment by the federal government in arts and science on March 13.

What if the words you are reading could leap off the screen?

What if instead of being flat and still, you could see words dancing on a speaker’s tongue? Or carrying the legacies of the generations who first gave them meaning?

“The Indigenous languages of North America in general and of Newfoundland and Labrador in particular are all under threat,” said Dr. Nicholas Welch, an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics. “Preserving these languages requires labour and passion not only in teaching and learning them, but in recording and documenting them.”

Beyond merely serving as a tool for communication, Dr. Welch knows that languages also have the power to shape identities and bridge generations.

“One critical aspect contributing to the disappearance of Indigenous languages is the lack of documentation and records.” — Dr. Nicholas Welch

With his recent renewal as a tier 2 Canada Research Chair (CRC) in change, adaptation and revitalization in Indigenous languages, the federal government has underscored the importance and success of Dr. Welch’s efforts to safeguard local Indigenous languages.

Thanks to his appointment, Dr. Welch assembled a dedicated team of researchers to develop and support the Labrador Languages Revitalization Workshops project.

His colleagues include Indigenous community members, Memorial University graduate students and a post-doctoral fellow.

Together, they’ve documented language use among Labrador Innu youth, developed a growing Innu language materials database and investigated verb structures in two families of Indigenous languages, Innu-aimun and Inuttitut.

Dr. Nicholas Welch, a white man in his early 50s, looks at the camera in circular photo with curved lines of different colours and designs to one side.
Dr. Nicholas Welch
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“One critical aspect contributing to the disappearance of Indigenous languages is the lack of documentation and records,” said Dr. Welch.

The language revitalization workshops also include programs designed to train community-based language workers in local communities.

Supporting the development of skills such as documentation, methodology and literacy will establish a solid foundation of Indigenous language preservation and revitalization in Labrador, he says.

First steps

Dr. Welch and his team have been diligently recording stories and interviews with Innu-aimun and Inuttitut speakers in Labrador and expanding on a substantial multimedia archive.

The archive was first created at Memorial University more than 40 years ago, largely due to the efforts of Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie.

Dr. Welch and his team’s major contribution has been to move these resources online into a searchable linguistic database, the Labrador Languages Preservation Archive. 

The ongoing digitization of these materials aims to transform the records into invaluable online resources for linguists, students and researchers across languages and cultural disciplines.

The pandemic forced the Labrador Languages Revitalization Workshops project to shift to an online model, so Dr. Welch and his team developed online conferences covering topics such as applying new technology to language documentation and revitalization.

Moving forward, he plans to continue enabling trainees to work directly with experienced Indigenous language teachers and linguists in local, in-person settings.

‘Perfect fit’

Reflecting on the significance of the Canada Research Chair program, Dr. Welch speaks to both the professional and the personal.

“The CRC program has resulted in my having a job that is an almost perfect fit to my research interests, not to mention the ability to build a research program that I could barely have dreamed about without the CRC resources,” he said.

Personally, it led him to Newfoundland and Labrador, a province he fell in love with from the day of his job interview.

As he continues his research, Dr. Welch says he aims to secure funding for additional workshops, with the ultimate goal of establishing a language revitalization certificate program — a proof of concept that could extend the impactful work of Indigenous language preservation and revitalization in the province and beyond.

CRC program

The Canada Research Chairs Program stands at the centre of a national strategy to make Canada one of the world’s top countries in research and development.

The program is a tri-agency initiative of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. It is administered by the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat.

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