Leading Canadian college makes language strides

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TORONTO - Known for its progress in the law and business fields, York University is now leading the way in revitalization of Canadian aboriginal languages.

As part of its graduate programs this fall, the large public research institution will allow students to conduct projects and theses in aboriginal languages other than the country;s primary languages, English and French.

''York University's motto is 'the way must be tried,''' said Barbara Rahder, dean of the institution's environmental studies program, in which the plan began. ''This initiative fits well within the spirit of York's motto and its long-standing commitment to social justice.''

York is believed to be the first large mainstream university effort in North America to allow and support overarching language-based learning for students in all graduate programs. The original proposal was solely focused on graduate students in the environmental studies program, but York has now made a commitment to include graduate students throughout the institution.

The program started on the grass-roots level by two indigenous graduate students in the environmental studies program who wanted to conduct their research in their own language. Faculty members were persuaded by the students that much of traditional knowledge - environmental and cultural knowledge, in particular - can be quite difficult to understand except in its original form.

''Culture, language and knowledge are virtually inseparable,'' Rahder said. ''I believe that Canadian educational institutions have a social responsibility to help preserve the indigenous languages of Canada.''

''This is an excellent initiative for which York is to be congratulated,'' said Paul Chartrand, director of the aboriginal governance program at the University of Winnipeg. ''It is an overdue recognition by a university that ideas are often best expressed in their original language. If universities are to meet their mandate to promote inquiry, then they have to consider what are the best means to inquire into and elaborate upon ideas?''

Rahder said York's effort is part of a broader worldwide movement to revitalize indigenous languages.

The biggest challenge in implementing the program, faculty members have found, is helping students find a supervisor who is fluent in the same language that the graduate student speaks.

For colleges considering similar initiatives, Chartrand said cost issues would likely be a factor, since there are not many fluent readers and speakers among mainstream university professors.

York is currently approaching its own implementation process one student at a time, but in the future professors hope to have a network of people who will be active supporters and supervisors for students wanting to do their research in their indigenous language.

Rahder said there has been much discussion about the initiative, but she is not aware of any resistance to the idea.

Native studies programs at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, and at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, allow graduate students to write in an indigenous language, but the programs aren't available for all graduate students.

The University of Winnipeg is currently considering a proposal similar to York's.