Recounting Hawai’i Part 1: Culturally-situated language research

IMG_20150304_113324As we are flying over the beautiful mountains of B.C.,  I realize that my week-long Hawai’ian journey comes to a close. Despite this, I am certain this is only the beginning of my own venture into language revitalization and documentation.

Thinking back on the past week, it is very difficult to pick any one part that stands out; every day was teeming with new friends, experiences and linguistic discovery. Hawai’ian landscape and beauty aside (an example photo below…),   here’s a slice of my (Yuliya’s) personal highlights, which I will relay across several blog posts.

Makapuʻu point and beach.

Makapuʻu point and beach.

The theme of this ICLDC, “Enriching Theory, Practice & Application” was incredibly fitting for the wide-ranging crowd (e.g. I met people in library sciences, independent studies, and social policy). I guess the thing that hit home the most was the acceptance of different fields as lenses through which we can create an interdisciplinary approach to language documentation. The main question being, how can we connect and strengthen our individual practices with theory, and apply it to what communities need and want?
I particularly enjoyed the opening plenary talk for addressing this issue in a way that was accessible to linguists and non-linguists alike.
Lenore Grenoble (University of Chicago) has been working with the Arctic Indigenous Languages Project to help “assess, monitor and promote the vitality of numerous indigenous languages found in the Arctic” (taken from the project website). The project, led by many community members across the Arctic Circle (including members from Canada, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, US, Norway), focuses on: 1. language policy;  2. language vitality assessment; and 3. language acquisition
Her talk addressed the following question: “How can a hitchhiker linguist help support language vitality?”
  • Hitchhikers = linguists who are not permanent members of communities but rather visitors along for the ride
  • As it turns out, language documentation can be fruitfully informed & even reoriented by guidelines created to teach communicative competence & proficiency in majority languages (i.e. taking a majority language proficiency test and making it suitable for smaller minority language communities)
    • communicative competence = cultural knowledge and knowledge of social conventions
  • Importantly, proficiency guidelines can be and should be informed by research in language acquisition, psycholinguistics and education
    • Moreover, the guidelines should be task-oriented and culturally as well as socially situated
    • That includes knowing how to speak, including knowledge of turn-taking mechanisms, appropriateness of nonverbal behavior, etc. (Savignon 2002)
      • We should adopt a more action-oriented approach: language users are social agents who develop general particular communicative competences while trying to achieve their everyday goals
      • This point is often overlooked or cut out by linguists who look at grammar; for instance, we tend to strip facial expressions in elicitations or when documenting natural speech
      • (Here Grenoble emphasized, IT’S OK NOT TO LIKE THESE GUIDELINES AS LINGUISTS…BUT THEY ARE GOOD. This is what people WANT to know. This is what speakers in communities want to learn!)
  • Language practices, too, can be revised. This is a large category that encompasses all the different ways we use language, e.g.:
    • everyday idiomatic uses of language
    • language games
    • songs
    • conversation, how to use language
    • traditional: prayers, traditional speeches
  • Thus, in documenting with your community, you need to ask yourself, “What skills are we trying to foster? What is realistic in language acquisition? What do learners want to know?” Paralinguistic meaning may be a big part of this.
    •  As an example, Grenoble presented some of her own research with Wolof, which is not endangered, but provides good evidence of shift in linguistic practices
    • Wolof has clicks that are contrastive. They have not been documented as part of the morphosyntactic or phonological system but they are definitely there!
      • Crucially, you can’t be a fluent speaker of Wolof without understanding/using these clicks!
      • As a fluent speaker, you have to know how to say yes with a click, how to say no with a click, how to correct someone with a click, etc.
 Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3.

Listuguj Visit

Hi! I’m writing to introduce myself. My name is Carolyn Anderson, and I’m a visiting student at McGill this semester. While I’m here, I’m hoping to work on some Mi’gmaq materials, as well as starting to learn the language myself.

Listuguj looking beautiful in the snow

Listuguj looking beautiful in the snow

I’m a linguistics student, but I’m also interested in technology (which is why I’m excited about this blog!). I spent last semester at University of Victoria, learning about technology projects for different indigenous languages in British Columbia.

Some highlights of my semester were getting a sneak peek at a Nxa’amxcin online dictionary that is under development, hearing about the FirstVoices online language archiving and lessons program, and attending the release party for the 2014 Report on the Status of B.C. Languages.

During my semester in B.C., I was also conducting interviews with language activists and linguists about their experiences using technology for language revitalization, something I hope to continue here on the East Coast too.

I arrived in Montreal around New Years, and the weather was quite a shock. I’m a West Coast girl (I grew up in Tacoma, WA). I considered never ever leaving my apartment again, but then Carol-Rose Little offered to take me to Listuguj with her, so I packed up all my coats and mittens and tagged along.

Me shocked by how snow it was.

Me shocked by how snow it was.

I had a wonderful time in Listuguj, and I hope I can visit again soon. I had the chance to sit in on some recording sessions for the online Mi’gmaq dictionary, which was wonderful. It was fun watching Joe and Eunice come up with new example sentences for the words.

Dinner with Language Workers from the Education Directorate

Dinner with Language Workers from the Education Directorate

I know that language revitalization is slow and often difficult work. But in my travels across Canada this year, I’ve been seeing small victories everywhere. Whether it’s new videos being posted in the Indigenous Language Challenge Facebook group, preschoolers giggling in Mi’gmaq in the hallways of the Education Directorate in Listuguj, or young people rapping in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ on the West Coast, there are indigenous language revitalization projects to celebrate all over the country.

My Vision for Listuguj

I am sure everyone knows that there is a strong importance of “preserving our language”—a phrase has been thrown around so much lately that it’s starting to lose its true meaning. I have wondered if non-speakers actually know that our language represents everything about native people’s ways: nature and land, spiritual ways, and even jokes and humor. It is embedded within the language that Mi’gmaq people have been doers, and our language is the life-force of our culture. Mi’gmag speakers have a totally different worldview than non-speakers, and as an indigenous person, wouldn’t you want an authentic worldview? Many may not understand how important it is to lose that part of your central identity and it’s so unfortunate to see so many of our people not taking action.

It only took that one generation, the parents who did not teach their children the language, to create the struggle we are in right now. It is our responsibility to start “preserving our language” rather than just acknowledging the fact that the issue exists. I understand it is difficult to learn a new language but it is not impossible, especially with all the resources out there. I have actually met people who learned our language within a month, and have held conversations with fluent speakers. This gives me hope for our own people.

My vision for Listuguj is for our people to seek identity through language and to share this aspiration with the future leaders of the community. We need to start doing things as a community to revive the sense of unique individuality as Mi’gmaw people. For example, I would essentially love to see a language camp developed –taking some of our kids to learn every aspect of their culture where the Mi’gmaw language spoken at all times. The central thesis would be to seek truth through learning the language along with learning about our peoples’ inherent connectedness with nature. When dealing with these future leaders, I understand the struggle in being divided between wanting acceptance from peers and being authentic to who you are. It is inevitable as an Indigenous person to encounter those who view us as a stereotypical drunk, poor, lazy Indian. Today, I can already see the kids in school who are lacking confidence in where they come from. These are the children that are going to fall into the stereotype or rise above it. My goal would be to spark the minds of the participants who will change their perspective on being Indigenous—inspire them to tackle this important issue of our diminishing language that our community has been burdened with. I want to change the minds of young kids, instead of them taking on the ways of the people who are essentially rejecting them, to thoroughly accept themselves for who they are as Indigenous Peoples.

Of course, the list is endless with what we can achieve. But I have faith that in the years to come, Listuguj will change perspectives in how choices are made for the community and to thrive in what is rightfully ours—a Mi’gmaw speaking community.

“Many Mi’kmaq argue that their language is their culture, the loss of which would be devastating. Not only does the language continue to be vital to the culture, it is beautiful and filled with profundity.” ~ Bernie Francis & Trudy Sable.

Indspire Guiding the Journey Award Recipient: Janice Vicaire.

My siblings and I were taught to expand our minds through knowledge and to always take advantage of educating ourselves. The benefits of education were often praised in my family because my mother, Janice, realized how important it would be for our future. She would often say, “No one can take your education away from you”. Along with her emphasis in investing in our education, she stressed the importance of being a Mi’gmaw speaker. Our family stood out because we had a household of Mi’gmaw speakers and most families in Listuguj spoke English. We are aware that our language makes us a close-knit family because we share something that not many families in Listuguj have. This kind of compassion for language is evident in her work, which brings forth an awareness to preserve our rapidly disappearing language.

More recently, the community of Listuguj has been motivated to reconnect with the Mi’gmaw language. Though many people in the community are familiar with my mother, her contributions to language often go unnoticed. She works full time as a Nursery Mi’gmaw Immersion teacher with a goal of making Mi’gmaq a part of these children’s everyday lives. She incorporates other aspects of the Mi’gmaw culture in unique ways that stimulate the children’s minds, making them eager to learn. In addition to her work as an educator, she is often asked to translate various projects into Mi’gmaw. For example, in the past she has contributed to translations of a Ph.D dissertation, a Mi’gmaq/English dictionary, scripts and community journals. Occasionally, she also co-teaches Mi’gmaw Language classes with her sister Mary Ann for community members and has assisted in teaching a Mi’gmaw Language course for Cape Breton University.

A group of colleagues at the Listuguj Education Directorate came across the Indspire Educator Awards that had a category suitable for my mother’s nomination—Language, Culture and Traditions. The award was created for an indigenous educator who made a vital contribution to his/her community by inspiring people through education. Her colleagues saw this as an opportunity to enlighten her accomplishments and decided to construct a nomination package. The nomination package also included letters of support from community members who had been moved by her efforts.

My mother’s impeccable knowledge in the Mi’gmaw Language, her diligence as an educator and her willingness to help others is inspiring to many. The passion she radiates for educating the people of Listuguj, and the energy she spends in language revitalization, is key to cultural awareness. Her fundamental contribution to the Mi’gmaw Language is the reason why she had been chosen to receive the Indspire Educator’s Award. Knowing that she is a humbled woman, we are thrilled that she finally has been acknowledged in a way that she deserves.

Wellugwen aq Wela’lieg!
Congratulations and Thank You!


Janice and her Granddaughter Mila
Photographer: Marsha Vicaire. 

Douglas Gordon featured in McGill Reporter “Notes from the Field”

Douglas Gordon, who spent his first summer in Listuguj last summer, has published a piece in the McGill Reporter’s “Notes from the Field”. Douglas writes about his experiences in Listuguj and the efforts of the Mi’gmaq language revitalization project ongoing there. View his story here.

“Notes from the Field” features posts by McGill students and professors who have done fieldwork and research across the world.

McGill Powwow

On Friday, Jacob Leon, Madeleine Mees and I manned a booth at the McGill Powwow. We emphasized the number of endangered indigenous languages in Canada (87!) and talked about what we are trying to do to help Mi’gmaq.


Madeleine, Jacob and Douglas at the McGill Powwow

We also tried to get people excited about learning Mi’gmaq by letting them know some interesting things about the language – words that English has borrowed from Mi’gmaq, the difference between ninen and ginu, the prefix wenj- and more. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. People were happy to see that we are trying to revitalize Mi’gmaq and seemed to take real interest in the language. It was also great to see some familiar faces from Listuguj.


Mini poster about the difference between ginu & ninen

Janine Metallic and Michael Hamilton on CKUT’s All Things McGill

On Monday September 1st, MRP members Janine Metallic and Michael Hamilton were featured on 90.3FM CKUT’s show “All Things McGill“. CKUT invited them to talk about the community-linguistics partnership between Listuguj and the McGill Linguistics Department.

Janine spoke on how the project began as a linguistics Field Methods course. “In sharing a knowledge about my language, I would also expect the class as a whole to share something with the community and so that’s where the partnership really started to take hold. All the students’ projects in the class were directed at parts of the Mi’gmaq language where they could come back to the community and present. And that’s what they did at the end of the semester.”

Michael spoke on the changing nature of research and fieldwork. He discussed the unfortunate tradition in many academic disciplines where there is “a lot of taking of knowledge and not a lot of sharing” adding that “recently this trend has been changing and we wanted to be part of this changing trend where knowledge can flow both ways.”

You can listen to the show here (scroll to minute 6 for the programme to begin).

the Language Workshop and where we are now

Last Tuesday, close to ninety people gathered in the Listuguj Bingo Hall to hear guest speakers, explore various booths and discuss the Mi’gmaq language. Many people put in a lot of effort into making the language workshop what it was and it was a great success. When speaking to the crowd, both Starr Paul and Diane Mitchell were able to convey a great sense of urgency about the fate of the Mi’gmaq language while at the same time gently welcoming new speakers to try, fail and try again, knowing that a language is not saved in a day. 


Miss Faye, Victoria Labillois and Sheila Swasson along with last year’s Mi’gmaq Immersion nursery kids. by Lola Vicaire

Similarly Conor Quinn, with an understanding of all the difficulty and embarrassment that can come with learning a new language (speaking several himself), offered from his booth tangible and specific advice on how to overcome these obstacles and embrace learning Mi’gmaq. 


Diane Mitchell and Houston Barnaby hashing out some details. by Lola Vicaire

Yet, while all the organized booths and activities were wonderful to see, it seems to me that the greatest success of the day was the simple fact that so many people were able to come together to think about and discuss (and speak!) Mi’gmaq. In any case of language revitalization, the efforts of individuals can only do so much. The real burden of work is on community members, both for speakers to teach the language and nurture its use and for learners to set aside time and take on the truly enormous task that is learning a language. What I saw on Tuesday was people from both camps thinking hard about their roles, scrapping old, tired ideas and replacing them with new, inventive ones. Nothing was solved for certain, nor could it have been, but when individuals come together to let each other know that they care deeply about an issue, that is what makes a community and a community is what makes change.   

Mi’gmaq Summer Workshop


Discussion groups

This workshop was wonderful, I led a discussion group and some of the ideas that the youth and elders came up with were just amazing; things like university courses, radio classes, total immersion summer camps and weekend school, shared language programs between all Mi’gmaq communities and  emphasizing advertisement were mentioned. This was a very well thought out workshop and I am glad that I got the chance to participate.    

Guest speaker Diane Mitchell

Guest speaker Diane Mitchell

Some of the points made about Diane’s speech were really moving. Diane talks about how the Mi’gmaq language used to be universal and now we have so many dialects for each community that to bring the language back for each community is nearly impossible compared to if we tried to bring back the universal language as it once was. The problem is that we no longer have a “universal” language and this will possible lead to the extinction of our language if nothing is done about it immediately.


Guest speaker Starr Paul

Guest speaker Starr Paul

I liked that the guest speakers didn’t just speak in English, being a learner I had a hard time understanding everything that was being said in Mi’gmaq/Mi’kmaq but just the fact that there were words that could be understood by almost everyone shows that our language is not completely lost and can be revitalized if we work really hard to bring it back.

Countdown: 5 days until Mi’gmaq Language Summer Workshop 2

With the second Mi’gmaq Language Summer Workshop  right around the corner, we thought it would be a good time to remind everyone how fun the first workshop was last year!


Photo by Janine Metallic.

 Highlight #1: At our first workshop we had two guest speakers from different Mi’gmaq communities—Bernard Jerome from Gesgapegiag and Jaime Battiste from Eskasoni. The speakers related their personal experiences with the language, and how speaking Mi’gmaq has influenced their life. Many students and Elders were happy to see the speeches given half in Mi’gmaq and half in English. Travis Wysote noted, “The speakers were eloquent, a natural occurrence when our People speak from their hearts.”

Highlight #2: The goal of the workshop was not only to inform community members about resources available for Mi’gmaq language-learning, but to foster dialogue between Elders and young language learners. In the second half of our workshop, the audience formed groups for discussion and talked about the state of the language in the community. Afterwards, students were asked to briefly summarize what was discussed in their group.

Students and Elders talking about the language.

Students and Elders talking about the language. Photo by Janine Metallic.

Mary-Beth Wysote wrote,

“The part that I enjoyed the most was the discussions. I loved hearing what the elders in my group had to say. […]  I realized after hearing what the elders had to say in our discussion group was that they regret not passing on the language and are genuinely afraid that the language will someday soon be lost. They also thought that the youth are not interested in learning Mi’gmaq which I can imagine discouraged them a bit. I don’t think I would have ever known how the elders felt towards the language had I not attended this workshop and they would not have known how us youth felt. The assumptions that we had about each other were wrong”

Highlight #3: Fun booths about a variety of topics were set up around the venue.

“The booths were interesting and ranged from more formal ones to informal ones and the information they shared was of critical importance with regards to language retention and language revitalization. Perhaps this was why the discussions were so lively.” (Travis Wysote)

We hope you can make it to this year’s workshop! Help us make language learning fun; bring your kids, your family, your pets!


Everyone having fun! Photo by Janine Metallic.

Tliultesgultesnen Bingo Hall—‘we will all meet at the Bingo Hall’