There's a generation of Indigenous people across Canada who were once shamed for speaking their own language.

Now, people who didn't learn their mother tongue from their parents are key to saving and revitalizing the languages, British Columbia researchers say.

Two University of Victoria Indigenous languages experts, whose own parents did not speak their languages at home, are moving to bridge the language gap with a mentor-apprentice program that teaches adults.

Peter Jacobs is a UVic linguist and fluent speaker of his Squamish Nation language. (UVic)

"There were generations of people, my parents and grandparents, who were sent to residential school and forbidden to speak their language and beaten and shamed and ridiculed and punished in all sorts of awful ways for speaking the language," said Peter Jacobs, a UVic linguist and fluent speaker of his Squamish Nation language.

"A lot of those people who came out of that school system chose not to teach their children the language," he said. "My dad doesn't speak Squamish as his first language for that very reason even though both his parents were fluent speakers. That caused a big disruption."

There are almost 60 Indigenous languages spoken in Canada, with B.C. leading the country with 34 languages.

Increase in semi-fluent speakers

A November 2014 report by British Columbia's First Peoples' Cultural Council found a decline in fluent Indigenous language speakers but an increase in semi-fluent speakers.

The study looked at 129,000 people in B.C. who speak an Indigenous language and found 60 per cent of fluent speakers are aged 65 and older, while one in three semi-fluent speakers are under the age of 25.

The program pairs mentors, who are fluent speakers, with adults who want to learn an Indigenous language.

The teacher and student are immersed in a curriculum where classes could involve hunting expeditions or family chores but are conducted entirely in the Indigenous language.

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