Carol and I had talked about the Mi’gmaq language thriving in the community of Eskasoni and how nice it would be to actually visit one day. A couple weeks later, we actually put the plans into actions and we were finally on our way to Cape Breton. I’ve been there in the past and one thing always came over me…a sense of home—even though Eskasoni is an 8 hour drive away from my home in Listuguj. During my visits there, I’ve been blessed to have met the kindest people that have welcomed me into their homes. But the biggest shock of my life was hearing the Mi’gmaq language spoken all around me by the community members: children, teenagers, adults, and elders. I soon realized it was hearing my own language that felt like home. Sadly, Listuguj is rapidly losing its language. I’m 25 years old and I am one of the youngest speakers left in my community. The only people I really can converse with in Mi’gmaq are older family members (50+) and elders.
I first met Blaire Gould when she came to Listuguj to meet with my aunt Mali Ann and my mom Janice on their Mi’gmaw language teaching techniques. As soon as I contacted her in regards to our trip to Eskasoni, she was more than willing to arrange meetings with Eskasoni’s Mi’gmaq Immersion teachers. On the first day in Eskasoni, we met two sisters who were retired immersion teachers: Barbara Joe and Frances Young. Frances spoke about her younger days when she couldn’t speak a word of English and the family learned to speak English by reading newspaper articles out loud to their father. During our talk, the women had made an interesting comment: it’s up to the mother to pass on the language to their children. Alan pointed out the term “Mother-tongue”. I realized I was just given a huge responsibility. I always knew my future children would be speakers, but the level of importance in passing our language is on a much bigger scale than just personal identity (as a Mi’gmaq woman). It’s how we indentify a community. But the question is, how can Listuguj be a Mi’gmaq community when its own people do not practice traditional ways, such as speaking Mi’gmaq? Without our language, our people will be nothing more than just numbers under the Indian Act.
The second day when Blaire invited us to Chapel Island, one immersion teacher stood out most to me. Sherise is a Mi’gmaq Immersion teacher, a mother and a breast cancer survivor. She introduced herself to us as the “Queen of the Island”. She spoke with us about her experiences as a teacher, and having her own children enrolled into the program even though they are fluent speakers anyway. One of her children had been somewhat neglected in the classroom because she was already a fluent speaker. As a result, she had lacked the necessary reading skills according to the curriculum. Sherise was very shocked at this because the teacher would always praise the little girl on how well she’s doing in her class. Starr, also a Mi’gmaq Immersion teacher and Sherise’s best friend, was first to notice the child’s lack of comprehension and reading skills. This reminded me of the Mi’gmaq teachers I had in school and how they would often use me to help out the other non-speaking students. I was not only bored in class, but looking back it was not fair for me as a student. These ladies both agreed that if a student is excelling in a subject, give them an even higher level of work to complete and help them become the best students regardless of his or her language abilities.
I always looked up to Eskasoni as a strong Mi’gmaq community, but even they are worried about the declining levels of Mi’gmaq speakers. However, what I had learned from these amazing teachers through the stories and experiences shared, I’ve never been surer of my decision in becoming a Mi’gmaq language teacher. I came out of there with so many resources and advice; and it also helped me learn more about what my role will be in my own community. I’m very thankful for the work and contributions McGill has done thus far in helping Listuguj recognize the importance in preserving our language. I feel there is a now strong awareness that Mi’gmaq language in Listuguj is rapidly disappearing, and it’s our responsibility as speakers to keep the language alive and strong.
Potlotek, also known as Chapel Island, is a Mi’gmaq community about an hour’s drive from Eskasoni. The menigu (‘island’) is located right on the Bras d’Or Lake, and is only accessible by a (short) boat ride. Our second day of travels brings us here, because around this time of year Potlotek is a central meeting place for people in the Mi’gmaq community; many families from Eskasoni go to Chapel Island for St. Anne’s Mission, and have been doing so for years.
The picture painted at Potlotek is encouraging, to say the least! Stepping foot on the island means seeing families gathered together outside of their cabins, mijua’ji’jg (‘children’) running around yelling to each other in Mi’gmaw. The atmosphere is friendly and welcoming—you can really feel a sense of community here.
We meet with Sherise Paul-Gould, Starr Paul, and Kattirin Johnson, all of whom have been teaching at various grade levels for many years in the Mi’gmaw Immersion Program at Eskasoni. Below are some memorable experiences shared with us:
1. Kattirin (Kat) Johnson is a grade 4 immersion transition teacher. Transition helps Mi’gmaq Immersion students that have been in the program since kindergarten move into English.
The year starts out in Mi’gmaq but eventually everything turns into English
- Teach Mi’gmaq grammar (graded more harshly than English); focus on topics like word order variability (English vs. Mi’gmaq) and past and future tenses (learning correct person endings)
- Teach various aspects of English grammar
- Initial observation: Mi’gmaq immersion students in grade 5 were reading at a much higher level than students that were not part of the immersion program
- Conducted a study with students in immersion which showed that students taught exclusively in Mi’gmaq from kindergarten to grade 3 perform better than those that are not in the immersion program. The immersion students not only excelled in Mi’gmaq, but were later excelling in English literacy (see previous bullet point).
- Their research also showed that the students had higher levels of self-esteem/confidence and were more likely to get involved in extracurricular activities.
- This link has a nice sum up of Starr and Sherise’s talk from FEL 2013. Look for “An Inquiry into Two Aboriginal Language Immersion Programs”
Throughout our meeting, Starr, Sherise, and Kat stressed the importance of having an immersion program. This was one of the most important, if not primary, way of preserving the language in Eskasoni. Starting an immersion program is a large and complicated milestone, but it is absolutely necessary to keep the language going. What do you say, Listuguj?
Our latest venture has brought us (Alan, Carol Rose, Douglas, Lola, and Yuliya) 739 km southeast of Listuguj to Eskasoni, a Mi’gmaq First Nations Reserve in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Eskasoni is a model community where the Mi’gmaq language is alive and spoken daily between its community members. Leaving on Sunday, we set out to meet with community members and Mi’gmaq teachers who are helping preserve the language.
The first day we met with our host, Blaire Gould, the Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey Mi’gmaq Language Coordinator. Blaire Gould works with all programs related to education and the Mi’gmaq language. These tasks include working with Mi’gmaq online dictionary, leading professional development workshops, presenting on the Mi’gmaq language programs around the continent, coordinating Mi’gmaq language programs in and around Eskasoni and between all that she organizes the bienniel L’nuisultinej conference at St. Francis Xavier University.
Retired teachers (a.k.a. The Pioneers of the Immersion Program) Barbara Joe and Fran Young and former Mi’gmaq immersion teacher Mary Propser-Paul joined us over tea to talk about their experiences teaching Mi’gmaq.
We talked to them about our newest development, learnmigmaq quizlet, which they received with enthusiasm. Grade 1 Mi’gmaq immersion teacher Cindy Poulette, has been using a flashcard game in her classroom. The grade 1 children sit in groups while Cindy holds up a card with a picture on it. Whichever group gueses the correct Mi’gmaq word first receives a point. She liked the audio and image function that quizlet provides. Due to its versatile and accessible nature, quizlet can be used in classrooms via the internet and projected on a screen for such games. When offline, the quizlet app can also be accessed with a smartphone or tablet and any list that had been opened beforehand can be used. The quizlet interface can accommodate a game such as Cindy’s for classes of all ages and all levels.
Meeting at the Elder Centre, we talked with retired and current teachers about the state of the Mi’gmaq language in Eskasoni as well as the programs in effect and under development. Eskasoni has an immersion program up to grade 4. The immersion program is taught at the community school in Eskasoni where all courses are transmitted in the Mi’gmaq language. Grade 4 is the transition year where classes are bilingual English and Mi’gmaq to prepare them for grade 5 where all classes are in English.
In the afternoon we took a tour of Goat Island, a cultural walking experienced located in Eskasoni. We walked around the island which had various mini villages set up along the way, each one having different theme. The themes of the mini villages included basket-making, waltes (a traditional Mi’gmaq game) and replicas of wigwams.
With Mary Ann Metallic’s Mi’gmaq classes (high school graduate and post-graduate) in full swing, there’s been a lot of interest in reinforcing the material introduced in class outside of class time. With suggestions from the students in mind, we found Quizlet—an accessible and easy to use app that allows us to create flashcards that can be used by anyone (and everyone!) interested in learning Mi’gmaq.
The flashcards are posted after every class, which means that if you are not in Listuguj, you can still follow along and learn what we are learning! Thus far 21 sets about various topics, ranging from greetings to food, have been posted here.
Some great features of Quizlet include:
- Compatibility with Android, iOS, and most web browsers
- Ability to access offline (after pre-loading the sets)
- Ability to import media–Mary Ann hand-picks the pictures that go along with each flashcard
- Ability to record audio to hear what the words sound like in Mi’gmaq–in fact, we’ve been recording the flashcard sets with different voices from around the community, so the students can hear what different speakers sound like (and even some of the students are involved!)
- Ability to test yourself in fun ways (matching, spelling, multiple choice, space race) and compete with others for a high score
- Make your own flashcards–once you have a Quizlet account, you can either search for flashcard sets that are already made, or create your own
- Great teacher function: Quizlet can generate quizzes from a set of flashcards and, depending on your preferences, can create multiple choice, matching, true false and written questions
Check out the “Learn Mi’gmaq Flashcards” tab at the top of our page and see how fun it is for yourself!
Conor Quinn recently brought to my attention an article by linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann that proposes for compensation to be paid to Australian Aborigines specifically for language loss. He argues that such a scheme would “support the effort to reclaim and revive the lost languages”, helping to reverse, or at least hold off, the systematic linguicide that has been going on since the colonization of Australia.
The proposed “Native Tongue Title” would parallel the pre-existing Native Title, which provides legal protection for Indigenous peoples’ land rights, and work in conjunction with existing grant schemes for language protection and revitalization. While Zuckermann recognizes the effectiveness of current language policies, he criticizes the fact that they are often subject to political ebb and flow and that different communities are forced to compete for the same limited resources.
Quoting Ken Hale, “when you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It’s like dropping a bomb on a museum, the Louvre.” A language protection policy with stronger foundations as suggested by Zuckermann could help to prevent such immeasurable loss. Of course, more money does not necessarily mean better language protection and the question of how to use available funds is of utmost importance.
There are many new developments going on this summer to spread the Mi’gmaq language. Follow us on instagram, twitter and facebook to stay involved!
Twitter – @learnmigmaq follow word of the day #migmaqwordoftheday
Listuguj Mi’gmaw Language Club – Weekly conversation group meeting every Thursday at 6pm at the Listuguj Education Directorate. All activities are solely in Mi’gmaq – a great way to practice conversation in Mi’gmaq.
Mi’gmaq Language Summer Workshop 2 - Check out our webpage under the workshop section for more information. This event will take place August 5th at the Listuguj Bingo Hall.
How to get involved
Be a part of our social media team! For Mi’gmaq videos, posts or pictures just use the hashtag #SpeakMikmaq or #SpeakMigmaq
Summer 2014, the McGill students are back. Yuliya, McGill PhD Candiate, and Carol Rose, beginning her doctoral studies at Cornell University in the fall, will both be traveling to Listuguj for their second and third summers, respectively. Douglas Gordon, an undergraduate in the linguistics department, will also be joining them after having been awarded the McGill Arts Scholarship.
New possibilities for summer 2014 are the following:
- Twitter word of the day
- Instagram/vine video of the day featuring a conversation or vocabulary word in Mi’gmaq
- A new web site, separate from the linguistic-y one, devoted to Mi’gmaq learning resources
- Buzzfeed-esque top 10 lists (e.g. top 10 essential words in Mi’gmaq, five ways to say hello)
- Weekly language club
- Surveys posted around in visible places of students learning Mi’gmaq similar to the survey posted below for AMEX by Beyoncé (except “why I learn Mi’gmaq” rather than “my card..”)
Please comment with thoughts about this below. All input is greatly appreciated!
A recent New York Times article brings up an interesting trend of authors writing in a second language. This is very common in the academic sphere as many academics chose English as the language for publication. However, in the literature sphere, writing in a second language is becoming more common. And it is not just English they are writing in.
The authors say a second language gives them a different perspective, some say even freeing them from the automaticism of a native language. They are able to play with words in ways that native speakers may not do. For example, Bosnian writer, Aleksandar Hemon, has invented new phrases like “clouds and cloudettes”.
Italian writer, Francesca Marciano, says about writing in a second language: “You discover not just words but new things about yourself when you learn a language…I am a different person because I fell in love with English…”
How does Mi’gmaq factor into this? Learners of Mi’gmaq should not think of their second language skills as a crutch. Rather, they can bring new and exciting flavour to the language they are speaking. There have been many successful writers and orators who use a non-native language as their language of choice. A second language can be a new and exciting medium of expression. Not only do you learn about another culture and history but you can also learn about yourself.
Anyone who is familiar with Mi’gmaq verb paradigms will recall the dizzingly large number of conjugations. Some forms that learners struggle to grasp are the dual and plural forms. The dual form is used when referring to two things and the plural, for three or more. This surfaces on verb endings. For example, the tongue twister migjigjg mijjijig means two turtles are eating. This is conveyed by the -jig verb ending (bolded). If three or more turtles were eating, it would be migjigjg mijjultijig.
Many English speakers, however, will be surprised to find that English had dual forms too! Old(e) English, that is. They were rare, even for the time, but a millennium ago English speakers distinguished between dual and plural in pronouns. Modern English first person plural form we comes from the Old English plural form, wē. The dual form of first person, wit, fell out of usage by the time Middle English had evolved. The plural form of ‘you’, gē, and the dual, git, were also used when addressing people directly. Though, today you wouldn’t want to refer any two people with the Old English dual form!
This is just one such instance of the underlying similarities between languages of completely different families. Though English and Mi’gmaq are very different in terms of grammar and lexicon, they do have some things in common. Or, at least, they did.