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
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.
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.