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How IB schools are celebrating International Year of Indigenous Languages

IB Curriculum Coordinator Julie Shaw, from SenPokChin (senpaq’cin) school in Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, Canada, tells IB World Editor Sophie-Marie Odum about how the school is celebrating the International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019 (IYIL).

Students from SenPokChin (senpaq’cin) taking part in the Salmon Festival.
Students from SenPokChin (senpaq’cin) taking part in the Salmon Festival.

Up to 90 per cent of indigenous languages are in danger of becoming extinct by the end of this century. This represents a huge loss of the world’s cultural diversity, impacting intercultural respect and understanding. Languages play a crucial role in our daily lives. They are our first medium for communication, education and social integration, and at the heart of each person’s unique identity and cultural history.

The world has come together to raise awareness because the UN declared 2019 as the ‘International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL19)’. More than 800 events have taken place around the world to date, and many IB World Schools have taken part.

“Our vision is that the youth walk with one foot in their indigenous culture and the other with a global view of the world.”


SenPokChin (senpaq’cin) is one of the first on-reserve schools in North America to become authorized to provide the Primary Years Programme (PYP). Students learn and have pride in their silyx (Okanagan) culture and heritage, and the school ensures that nqilxʷcn (the traditional language of the silyx people) is embedded into everyday teaching and learning experiences.

However, nqilxʷcn, an indigenous and endangered language, is not widely spoken within many homes or in the community. In a bid to create a younger generation of speakers, senpaq’cin is using IYIL19 to celebrate and highlight the language. In the process, it is also helping shatter stereotypes and increase understanding of the culture.

A student from SenPokChin making rope using spi’cn

Pilot programme

senpaq’cin is set in Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, Canada, and it is built on the foundations of indigenous knowledge and the identity and pride of The Okanagan People. The school belongs to the nk’mip people, who are part of the Syilx (Okanagan) Nation located in the southern part of British Columbia, Canada. The region has diverse topography; the south is the only desert forest in Canada and stretches north to the Monashee mountain, merging with typical Canadian forest life.

To successfully deliver the nqilxʷc language to students, the school embarked on a pilot project this year, which happened to coincide with IYIL19. Community elders work with a trained second language (non-fluent) classroom teacher and two fluent speakers to deliver nqilxʷcn, using a second language instruction framework called A.S.K.M.E. Students are free to ask elders questions, which encourages dialogue in nqilxʷc. It’s a daily practice, for all ages, and lasts for up to 45 minutes.

Classroom teachers and all support staff participate too. The goal is for everyone to use as much of the nqilxʷcn language as possible.

The school’s language team also participates in language acquisition and professional learning training. Educators gather two or three times a year to discuss ways to enhance second language learning within the communities.

Cultural experiences

Students are immersed in traditional cultural experiences throughout the year. “Wherever possible, our Units of Inquiry (UOI) weave in natural learning experiences that relate to the world around them and the community,” says Shaw.

Students from SenPokChin drying the salmon they collected

For example, students travel to the community sweat lodges – huts made from natural materials – to explore where, how and what the structures are made out of, comparing past and present resources available to the nk’mip people.

Students learn about the Nation’s traditional cultural (captikwl) stories, which underpin the cultural beliefs and values for the nk’mip people, and have been passed down throughout generations. “At the beginning of our monthly celebrations of learning, staff re-enact one of the stories as a way to bring it back to life within the community,” says Shaw.

They also participate in seasonal traditional practices, which incorporate the language in authentic, hands-on learning experiences. Students recently learned about the ‘food chief’, ntytix (salmon). They discovered how to fillet and dry the salmon. “During the fall, the season of the hunt, students will learn how to butcher a deer, prepare hides, dry meat, harvest spi’cn for making rope, pick tea and harvest tuk’tən to make replicas of traditional sleeping mats,” explains Shaw.

Students plan and host the Four Food Chief Feast in the winter months. They listen to elders tell the captikwl while they work, quietly turning spi’cn into rope, sew moccasins or work on a beading project. “The winter is also a time for cleansing the spirit in the Sweathouse and celebrating with family during the Winter Dance,” says Shaw.

The spring was a time for the root harvest. Students were out on the land digging ‘food chief’ spitləm, wild onion, wild potato, wild ginger and balsam root. This year, the school will expand on celebrations by including a Root Feast, where students will practice gratitude for the coming of the new season, and harvest and prepare these traditional foods.

“As the school year closes, students will be out on the land berry picking,” says Shaw. “During this time, students pick the food chief siya (saskatoon berry). These berries are dried in the sun or cooked into a delicious jam.”

Shaw adds: “Through these hands-on learning experiences and the captikwl stories, students compare the traditional beliefs and values of the Okanagan Nation and find similarities to other cultures around the world – past and present.”

One of the teachers from SenPokChin making rope from spi’cn

Shifting stereotypes

Canada has had a difficult and painful history with the First Nations people. As a result, the common stereotype is that First Nations education is of a lesser quality than that of educational practices in ‘town’ or off the reserves, says Shaw.

“We believe that being an IB World School will help shift the stereotypes that exist and acknowledge that indigenous people have always had a deep understanding of how the world works, and that this knowledge can be shared globally.”

senpaq’cin may be celebrating IYIL19, but its efforts go far beyond the UN’s initiative. Keeping the nqilxʷc language alive is integrated into everyday learning, helping to promote and protect an indigenous language, and improve the lives of those who speak them.

You can read more about the IYIL in the latest issue of IB World Magazine here. For more information about IYIL19, visit: Additionally, The IB has created an Indigenous Schools Network. If you would like to participate, you can join through Programme Communities.

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