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Finding history, family and identity in Vancouver’s heritage languages

It takes a village to keep a language alive.

Published July 28, 2022

Headshot of Irene Zhang Irene Zhang

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In Vancouver, Canada, nearly half of the residents grew up speaking a language other than English. That’s according to the 2016 Census. Walk down a busy street anywhere in town, and you’re bound to hear people speaking languages from all over the world. Among them are languages indigenous to the Pacific Northwest.

AAJA VOICES fellow Irene Zhang explores why preserving heritage languages is important for two communities in the region: one, the indigenous Squamish people and the other, Cantonese speakers.

Revitalizing Sḵwx̱wú7mesh on Indigenous Land

It takes a village to keep a language alive, and many Vancouverites draw their identity from their heritage mother tongues. The city sits on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Their languages are hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish). Despite centuries of cultural genocide, these languages are still spoken on their ancestral lands.

Sníchim Foundation, a nonprofit working to preserve the Squamish language.

Jeffrey began learning the language at 19 years old. It helped her connect with her grandmother, an Indian day school survivor.

“I only ever heard her speak a handful of Squamish words in [her] lifetime,” says Jeffrey. “I’ve heard from other [Squamish] speakers that she was just an incredible speaker.”

That’s because Jeffrey’s grandmother was a silent speaker, someone who understands a language but usually cannot speak it.

“When she felt like she was in a safe space with her friends, peers, and elders, she was able to speak in the language,” says Jeffrey. “I wish I was able to witness it.”

Today, Jeffrey is raising her son as a native Squamish speaker. He’s the first in four generations in her family to be raised this way. She’s documenting this journey on TikTok.

“I always tell people, even if you’re just saying one word of your indigenous language, your ancestors can still hear you,” says Jeffrey. “They’re still smiling, just hearing that one word.”

Around the world, speaking more than one language is often the norm. That’s according to Dr. Sarah Phillips, a linguist and incoming researcher at the Georgetown Medical Center.

“People are naturally resistant to just being monolingual,” says Phillips. “We see this in the United States, where people [strive] to maintain their [heritage] languages, even given the socio-economic pressures to conform and be English proficient.”

A Century of Cantonese in Saltwater City

Cantonese-speaking immigrants in Vancouver have been holding on to their language for more than 130 years.

Excluding English, Cantonese is the most common language for Vancouverites to speak as they grow up. The language originates from China’s Guangdong province.

Chinese, or “huaren”, is the most commonly reported ethnicity among Vancouverites. But it’s only an umbrella term for communities with diverse linguistic heritages.

Phillips says what defines a language isn’t objective but rather a product of complex political interests.“The short answer to [what makes up a language] is,” says Phillips. “It all matters if you have an army and a navy.”

Dr. Benjamin Cheung is a psychology lecturer at the University of British Columbia who studies cultural adaptation in human migration. He immigrated from Hong Kong as a child.

“Cantonese is a language. Mandarin is a language,” says Cheung. “Chinese is a very broad description of an adjective associated with a country of people with so many different languages.”

Cheung says there’s been a renewed interest in the Cantonese language in North America due to political repression in Hong Kong since the 2019 Anti-Extradition Bill protests and emigration out of the city. He says this is especially evident among the diaspora.

“It became clear the importance of centering, promoting and preserving Hong Kong and Cantonese culture,” says Cheung. “[And] the Cantonese language in itself.”

In its century-old Chinese community, Vancouver’s linguistic environment makes it particularly special for language preservation.

“There’s a lot of business owners, new migrants coming in, [and] so many different commercial establishments,” says Cheung, “[There are] so many different social support structures.”

And whatever language you speak and regardless of how much you are able to use it, Dr. Phillips says all of it is worthwhile.

“As long as you’re understood and people can understand you, there’s something interesting and valuable in that,” says Phillips. “We don’t want to devalue that just because it may or may not appear in a textbook.”

Languages are essential to Vancouver’s heritage; the challenge is protecting them for generations to come.

Irene Zhang is a 2022 Voices reporter. This story was edited by Tiffany Camhi.

Irene Zhang is a graduate of the University of Oxford in 2022 and is currently working in social media marketing and edits the Substack newsletter ChinaTalk by night, covering Chinese tech and society. 

Tiffany Camhi is the All Things Considered host and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, Oregon.


Headshot of Irene Zhang

Irene Zhang

University of Oxford

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