Revitalizing Indigenous languages

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Is learning a new language at a young age really the most beneficial? On a scientific level, perhaps. After all, research studies have shown that doing so can enhance a child’s cognitive development, and that there is a critical period for language acquisition at younger ages. But for Indigenous language learners, the focus is not just for children, but for the community at large.

Quebec is home to 11 distinct nations of Indigenous peoples, which include the 10 First Nations as well as the Inuit. Together, they account for approximately 71,000 individuals, constituting nine per cent of the total Indigenous population in Canada. Forty-seven per cent of the Indigenous population in Quebec identified their native language as their respective mother tongue.

However, such statistics by nature are no more than numbers, and they fail to reflect stories of the thousands of people in Quebec facing the challenges of learning their Indigenous language. These stories, after all, do not belong to numbers. They belong to people.

Chelsea Vowel is of Métis descent from the Plains Cree-speaking community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta who recently moved to Montreal.  Although Vowel’s first language was not Cree, she recalls  hearing a small handful of Cree words every once in a while within the community she grew up in.

“It wasn’t until my Law degree at [the] University of Alberta when I started taking a Cree class [that…] I realized that the broken English [I heard as a child] was Cree syntax in English,” Vowel said. “A lot of the things that people were saying and the way they were saying it was because they were translating directly [from Cree]. For me, it proved that […] it was about people speaking English as Cree people. And that was a really big revelation for me and for my confidence about it—for the way that I felt about the language.”

After learning Cree, Vowel now commits herself to Indigenous language education in Montreal.

“I always knew that I needed to teach it to other people,” Vowel said. “My kids first, but other people as well. Right now, I do a lot of writing, a lot of educating, but I spend a fair amount of time gathering Cree resources.”

However, Vowel has recognized some of the difficulties that arise with this task.

“That’s a little difficult here because Plains Cree is not the Cree that’s spoken in Quebec. So I felt sort of intrusive in that way. The Indigenous languages that are being taught in Montreal should represent the Nations that are here in Quebec.”

This divide is one of many challenges people like Vowel face in revitalizing Indigenous languages. With 11 nations of Indigenous people and many dialects from each First Nations language, finding the resources to be able to effectively teach all these languages is no easy feat.

“People […] want to teach Cree, [but] which Cree?” Vowel said. “There’s this […] push to standardize [….] When you have six different dialects, people tend to pick the biggest one, the one that’s represented by the most; [but] we don’t want to get rid of [that] diversity.”

Photo courtesy of Leonor Daigneault.
Photo courtesy of Leonor Daigneault.

Allan Vicaire, the Indigenous education advisor at the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) office at McGill, works closely with programs such as Indigenous Awareness Week and workshops targeting students and faculty in order to educate the McGill community about Indigenous people in Canada. Vicaire explained that while the school will hopefully be offering an Indigenous Studies minor in the near future, there are still challenges with incorporating a comprehensive language component.

“[There could be a] resource program [at McGill] in Mohawk, or maybe Inuit or Cree,” Vicaire said. “But most of the times, [groups will] only offer programs in the surrounding communities. Not all languages will be taught at McGill because there are so many.”

Recently, the First Peoples’ House (FPH) at McGill has started to offer a Mi’gmaq language class in an attempt to provide more learning opportunities within the McGill community. Janine Metallic, a Mi’gmaq from Listuguj and PhD candidate in McGill’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education (DISE) and Mi’gmaq language consultant in McGill’s Department of Linguistics, was approached by Vicaire and Paige Isaac, FPH coordinator, to teach the class.

“For the first time ever, there is an opportunity on campus for language learners to get together and learn Mi’gmaq,” Metallic said. “Many of the language learners are Mi’gmaq staff members and students who work and study in various parts of the McGill community. My hope is that having a Mi’gmaq class on campus will provide something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Montreal—a common space to hear and speak the Mi’gmaq language. The larger goal is to provide a place where we can work toward Mi’gmaq language revitalization, especially among the youth.”

But learning a language—in any dialect—comes with a slew of challenges.

Leith Mahkewa experienced these obstacles firsthand after deciding with her husband that they would raise their children to be first-language speakers in the Kanien’keha (Mohawk) language, despite the fact that both Mahkewa and her husband had learned English first, and Mohawk second. Mahkewa now works as the Mohawk culture and language facilitator at Step By Step Child and Family Centre, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Kanien’keha:ka Onkwawen:na Raotitiohkwa Language and Cultural Centre. In her work, she strives to revitalize Indigenous languages in the Mohawk Nation Territory, just southwest of Montreal. Mahkewa explained that second language learners—those whose first language is English or French rather than their respective Indigenous language—often feel apprehensive toward learning a new language.

“I think everyone wants to [learn], but for whatever their circumstance is, there doesn’t seem to be a commitment,” Mahkewa said. “If it was equivalent to going to university, if it was appreciated as much […] then maybe people would be more apt to do those language-learning courses. The community as a whole has to be dedicated to that. The learning of the language can’t be forced, but people need to know how important it is for [not only] themselves but also for the community.”

Mahkewa further noted that learning a new language, like any endeavour to learn a new skill, will always lead to a hint of self-doubt.

“People are afraid to make mistakes,” Mahkewa said. “They don’t want to feel judged. People feel safe [wherever it is that] they’re learning, but a lot of times it takes more confidence to go out and speak in public. But if you don’t use it, you lose it; so you have to engage with people outside of your comfort zone and speak the language.”

Another pressing challenge that these language learners face is funding.

Anna Daigneault, the Latin America project coordinator and development officer at Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages (an organization dedicated to the preservation of endangered languages) highlighted the amount of effort and funding that have to go into programs to teach these languages.

“Language revitalization and documentation require the same components as any big undertaking,” Daigneault said. “It’s going to take time, coordination, scheduling, money, organization, and communication.”

Mahkewa works at Step By Step, where Indigenous language learning is emphasized. (Courtesy of Step by Step)

Though these hurdles still exist, Vowel explained that the rise of the Internet has been helpful in creating resources and programs for learning Indigenous languages.

“I think with some of the tools we have now [online], I’ve seen resources becoming more plentiful and representing different dialects, whereas before […] it’d be expensive to put out a small line of books and do that for six different dialects,” Vowel said.

But solely learning online is not optimal. This has led to the development of “language nests”—programs where adults and children within a community come together to learn in a total immersion experience. The focus of these language nests is to provide a place for learners to interact in the language in order to enhance their learning process.

“You can’t learn in an isolated environment,” Vowel said. “Isolation is the number one language killer.”

Regardless of the volume of difficulties that might arise, many like Vowel and Mahkewa are still taking the initiative to revitalize Indigenous languages in whatever capacity they can manage. For these individuals, the importance of maintaining the language will remain at the forefront of their priorities.

In Daigneault’s experiences working with Living Tongues, she had observed that preserving a sense of self-identity will often supersede any difficulties an individual might face when learning a new language.

“It’s very important on the cultural and identity level for the individual,” Daigneault said. “If the [learner] has a very strong connection with their heritage, then no matter what the potential obstacles are, [that] person will overcome the obstacles to learn their language. And [this] goes beyond the price that it may cost. For a lot of people, learning their language is very important on a spiritual level; it is related to their belief systems and their connection to their own ancestors.”

Amidst all these rising programs and initiatives to revive Indigenous languages both in Quebec and in Canada, there is a constant awareness amongst Indigenous people with regards to the undeniable importance of maintaining these languages.

“When we lose our language, we lose our laws,” Vowel said. “And we lose our ability to access our socio-political order. Because the very way that our languages are structured tells us about how we relate to the world. When we use English to translate our concept, we lose something, and we also import something that doesn’t belong there. When we translate, we are doing a disservice to those concepts.”

Moe Clark, whose background is Métis, and who began learning Cree this past summer, kept those concepts in mind when she worked with Daigneault to assemble an Indigenous language panel this month, featuring many who are involved with language revitalization.

“Preserving Indigenous languages means keeping the entire cosmology, ceremony and culture of a people alive,” Clark said. “In a language exists an entire history of information, of stories—a collective ‘narrative memory,’ as Neil McLeod puts it. Each language informs us of our past, present, and future.”

“We need to go back to our languages,” Vowel said. “The language is what holds our culture together like glue. There is no separation in my mind. The language is the culture; it’s how we express ourselves. When you take the language away, you take away the culture.”