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Learning a language can be hard, but it’s even harder when there’s almost no one left to learn it from. That was the challenge for Simon Fraser University visiting professor Anvita Abbi. She decided to teach a course on Haida, which she had no experience with before — and almost no one to learn it from.

“When I came here, I realized there are hardly any [Haida] speakers left, except maybe two or three,” she said.

Abbi came to SFU as a visiting scholar for the school’s partnership with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. She’s an expert on endangered languages in her home country of India.

When asked to teach a course at SFU, she insisted on it being a field course. As someone with experience preserving languages, she took up the challenge of teaching students how to preserve Haida, one of B.C.’s endangered Indigenous languages. 

Abbi knew it would be crucial to have a native Haida speaker around. The director of SFU’s First Nations Language Centre, Marianne Ignace, found Haida elder Lawrence Bell, who assisted Abbi with the course. 

Bell grew up with the language as a child and knows he’s one of the last native Haida speakers in the world. However, he admits that even he has gaps in his knowledge. “All the fluent speakers are all gone!” he said.

It’s a challenging reality of learning an endangered tongue. But as Abbi says, it means that everyone in her class is a young student once again.

You can read more on SFU’s website

This article was originally published on The Tyee, as part of a distribution partnership with SFU for their in-house videos about SFU innovators.