Speakers of English as a second language say that they respond differently when someone speaks to them in their first language.
There’s a deep emotional connection to that first language, and a strong response to hearing the words of grandparents and great-uncles. LaRae Wiley hears the same thing about Salish, the native language of Spokane-area tribes, for which she has just opened an immersion day care program.
“What we hear parent say is, ‘Oh, my grandmother always said that, what does that mean?’ ” said Wiley, sitting on a small chair in the day care’s main room. “There is only a bit more than a handful of native Salish speakers left in our area. I think the Spokane Tribe has 10, and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has two.”
Like so many other Native Americans, Wiley grew up “off the rez” as she puts it, in Cheney. Her dad is Colville, but no one in her home spoke Salish. Years later, Wiley found herself teaching Salish in high school and college classes before taking a year off to live with a tribal elder in British Columbia. That’s where she really learned the language.
“I can spend the day in the language now, and I think that’s pretty good,” Wiley said.
Salish School of Spokane’s day care, kindergarten and preschool, at 5809 N. Cedar St., is the culmination of Wiley’s hard work creating a Salish curriculum and quite a few classes taught in relatives’ basements.
“I’ve been working on learning Salish and developing a curriculum for the last seven years,” said Wiley. “I started teaching my granddaughter and then I got more serious. I had a pilot project last year.”
The day care is licensed for 12 students and it’s a nonprofit organization. Volunteers raised more than $30,000 over the past two years to get the immersion program off the ground.
“From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. we only speak Salish,” said Wiley. “The children go home and sometimes the parents call and ask what song it is they are singing all the time? Then it’s the tooth-brushing song or the line-up song. The parents really embrace it.”
The day care’s main room looks like any other well-equipped child care center except for the Salish words written on the board and on stickers attached to everything from the bookcase to the toys and posters featuring primary colors.
“The language was traditionally oral, there is no Salish alphabet, we use the International Phonetic Alphabet to spell,” said Wiley. “Salish is known for its ‘clicks’ and this ‘whoosh’ sound and this kind of rolling ‘r’ sound. It’s hard to learn all the new sounds – but the children are comfortable with it.”
Wiley said the immersion model helps children learn faster, but in order for the language to stick they need to have someone to talk to and listen to, at home.
That’s why parents are asked to come to Salish classes, too.
“That can be a little hard, but we have an evening class and now also an afternoon class,” said Wiley. “Many families are mixed Colville and Okanagan. I’d say the parents have embraced us.”
Salish School of Spokane hosts a monthly dinner with traditional foods and, of course, lots of Salish spoken.
The school is not affiliated with a particular tribe, but has received grants from the Kalispel and Colville tribes, as well as from Community Minded Enterprises.
“Our dream is to expand, to be K through 12,” said Wiley. “People have been so supportive and so generous to us.”