âpihtawikosisân: “Roadblocks to effective indigenous language development”

For anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the âpihtawikosisân blog, I (Yuliya) highly recommend doing so.  I recently read this blog post, which was not only insightful, but also a wonderful read. As a linguist, I was only aware of some of the issues hampering effective indigenous language revitalization: lack of funding, lack of commitment on a wider level, and suspicion in the communities. It turns out that the bigger picture is more complex, and, as the author points out, includes lack of communication (emphasis is mine):

This is not just about money, this is also about coordination and sharing of expertise. We have so many people out there on their own, trying to do the same things over and over again, not even aware of one another. We have Language Nest programs in some communities that are doing very well; we have unique community-based schools that successfully integrate cultural learnings and graduate academically competent students. We have people creating online and print resourcesapps and so on. We even have people offering free language classes in urban centres. It often feels to me that we are going in a thousand different directions, and in doing so we are all beating the same path without really moving forward.

 

I encourage everyone to take a few minutes to read this post, if not for the content, then for the clarity of prose. Using social media, like this blog and the ‘Nnu’gina’masultinej Facebook page, to to communicate, support, and update each other is a small step in the right direction. But taking small steps can produce big results! There are many communities across Canada that are facing similar language issues; it is definitely worth sharing our expertise and experience thus far.

Idle No More and Canada’s Languages

The grassroots Idle No More movement is gaining momentum across Canada. In Listuguj, supporters have blocked and slowed highway traffic and set up blockades at the railroad tracks at Pointe-à-la-Croix to prevent freight trains from passing through. The Mi’gmaq Grand Council recently issued a letter in support of the movement, calling on Canada to respect Mi’gmaq Constitutional and treaty rights. This afternoon, the Van Horne bridge will be closed for a peaceful march, and Listuguj Chief Dean Vicaire will travel to Ottawa to meet with Stephen Harper as part of a delegation of First Nations Leaders.

Vicky Metallic holds a sign at the Van Horne bridge, also pictured on the banner of this blog

Much of the discussion surrounding Idle No More focuses on the Harper Government’s policies on natural resources––and specifically on Bill C-45. But Montreal-based blogger âpihtawikosisân points out that the movement is about more than land and water rights: it is about the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples more generally.

How does language factor in to all of this? In 1951, 87% of Aboriginal people in Canada spoke an Aboriginal languages as their first language. By 1986 this number had dropped to 29% (Burnaby & Beaujot 1986). At current rates of decline, it is predicted that only four of what were once sixty Aboriginal languages spoken in Canada will survive into the next century (UBC 1996).

These languages have not simply fallen out of use. Rather, their decline began in large part with targeted assimilation efforts by the Canadian Government and churches, specifically in the form of Residential Schools. Residential school attendance was mandatory for Aboriginal children between 1884 and 1948, and the last school did not close until 1996. During this period, some 150,000 children were removed from their homes and forced to stop speaking their languages––often at the threat of physical violence. By forcing children to stop speaking their languages, Residential Schools attempted to take away more than just a means of communication:

If you take a language away from its culture, you take away its greetings, its curses, its praises, its laws, its literature, its songs, its riddles, its proverbs, its cures, its wisdom, its prayers. You are losing those things that essentially are the way of life, the way of thought, the way of valuing, and a particular human reality (Fishman 1996).

Though some steps towards reconciliation have been made, a lot of work is still needed to bring these languages back to their communities.

Given the importance of language to cultural identity, it is no surprise that languages have played an important role in indigenous movements worldwide. Across Canada, advances are being made by community-driven language reclamation efforts. This momentum can be seen clearly in Listuguj. In addition to the Mi’gmaq language classes and immersion program being offered at the Listuguj Education Directorate, a number of other community efforts are underway. See the links under “About this project” above to learn more about  the Can-8 language-learning software and the new Master-Apprentice Program currently being piloted in Listuguj.

Reclaiming Indigenous Education through Language and Culture

APTN National News recently featured a three-part series on how the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia are reclaiming their education. It’s great to see how communities are providing a solid foundation for students through Indigenous language and culture programs.

To view the video clip on the APTN website, click on the following link: Mi’kmaq reclaiming what was lost through education.

Language Revival in Oregon – The Siletz

The New York Times has recently written an article about the revitalization project amoung the Siletz tribe in Oregon entitled Tribe revives language on verge of extinction. They are incorporating language programs in school, teaching Siletz as a foreign language, for members of the community to learn. There is also a Siletz talking dictionary! (like the Mi’gmaq one!!) Their dictionary has attracted attention from users from related language groups as well as users all around the world. It has become more and more popular for youngsters to learn because not only is it part of their Siletz identity, the language also “can sound pretty cool” with its many sounds not found in English. Bridging technology and tradition, the Siletz are creating successful language resources.

Endangered Languages Project

Interesting new project from Google: a website for information in and about endangered languages. Description from their main page, at www.endangeredlanguages.com:

The Endangered Languages Project, is an online resource to record, access, and share samples of and research on endangered languages, as well as to share advice and best practices for those working to document or strengthen languages under threat. (Source)

More details on the project at the Google blog press release and an FAQ on sources for the information. People here at CoLang with me seem pretty interested by this, and a few of the people here are already involved.

I just checked out the entry for Mi’gmaq, and it’s pretty incomplete. For example, only one location is listed where the language is spoken, around Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, the primary spelling is listed as Micmac, and the primary classification is listed as Algic. There are three Youtube videos linked, but no other materials in the language.

However, people and organizations are encouraged to sign up and add more to the entries. On the one hand, getting involved could correct some of this information and make more resources available. On the other hand, it would be extra work for us, and we’re already making materials available online. At minimum, maybe we could consider logging in and making some links to Mi’gmaq-language resources that are already online? Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Aljazeera Programme on Endangered Languages

There’s an interesting-looking TV series starting on Al Jazeera about endangered languages. The description on the website reads “Living the Language: Every 14 days a language dies. Follow the people battling to save theirs.” One of the six featured languages is spoken in Canada (Ktunaxa) and another is spoken in Guatemala (Maya). More information here: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/livingthelanguage/

Bilingualism and the brain

Check out today’s New York Times for an article titled “The Benefits of Bilingualism: Why Bilinguals are Smarter“.

What does this have to do with Mi’gmaq? Many endangered languages of the world––including languages of the Americas––have arrived at their current state because of education policies designed to “help” children assimilate to the dominate culture, whether this be English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, French-speaking, etc. The logic went (and often still goes…): if a child speaks Mi’gmaq at home, it will slow down her ability to learn English, putting her at a disadvantage later in life.

Work in recent decades, as discussed in this NYT article, points to a much different conclusion, but one that many people have suspected all along: bilingualism is good for kids! Not only from a cultural point of you, but also from a cognitive point of view. This is obviously good news for advocates of revitalizing indigenous languages. The issue is not a choice between maintaining one’s cultural heritage and linguistic identity versus being able to communicate in the dominant language. Rather, having access to two languages is not only a natural state, but one with clear benefits.

Question: Do you know of other work documenting the benefits––cognitive, cultural, political, etc.––of bilingualism? Please post to the comments!