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Grad student hopes to preserve his native tongue

BY CAITLIN CRAWSHAW | APR 07 2008

At a time when indigenous languages are vanishing around the world, a University of Alberta graduate student is working towards preserving the language of his people, the 30,000 inhabitants of the small Japanese island of Tokunoshima. “I want to give something back to my island because we’re losing in a way our identity, who we are, by losing the language and culture,” says Satoru Nakagawa.

Mr. Nakagawa has witnessed the loss of the oral language, known as Shimaguchi, firsthand. Only somewhat resembling Japanese, the language declined sharply during his childhood in the 1970s, largely due to mass media and educational policies that made Japanese the language of instruction. Comparable to the banning of aboriginal languages in Canadian schools, teachers rigidly enforced the policy on the island.

Mr. Nakagawa’s supervisor, Makere Stewart-Harawira, says the loss of Shimaguchi mirrors the loss of indigenous languages around the world. Colonizing countries, she says, have deliberately sought to “bring Indigenous people into the modern era” by forcing them to adopt the dominant culture.

After completing an engineering degree in Japan, and a master’s in physiology at the University of Manitoba, Mr. Nakagawa is now completing his PhD in education at U of A. His studies initially focused on muscle movement and aging, but he switched his focus to culture and language in an effort to better help his people. If his thesis proposal is accepted, Mr. Nakagawa will return home to study how his people see their language and whether they wish to revitalize it.

His work is part of the faculty of education’s indigenous scholar program, a 12-year-old program which currently supports some 20 graduate students working in indigenous education. “We’re an education program, so we’re critically interested in the whole broad range of issues around indigenous education,” says Dr. Stewart-Harawira, “and language is a big part of that.”

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