Blog #1: Confessions of a Mi’gmaq Language Learner — Travis Wysote

By now most of my family, friends, and acquaintances are familiar with my views based on the things I write. I go on and on (and on and on) about the importance of maintaining environmental integrity in order to preserve our language and culture. And while environmental integrity is still a serious concern of mine, I wish to bring shift my attention towards language and culture.

 We Mi’gmaq have been resisting colonial encroachment for centuries. We have fought colonialism and assimilation into the Canadian body politic. We have fought and continue to fight the exploitation of our lands and resources – speaking up on behalf of all our relations. While the fight against these forces has many battlegrounds, such as the forests, the waters, social media and the courts, the fight to preserve language is within: within our Nation, within our communities, within our families, and within ourselves. If the integrity of our territory is diminished, our language and culture are diminished with it. I have always asserted this. But the inverse has recently been brought to my attention: without Mi’gmaq language informing our values, we will partake in the destruction of our own territory. Indeed, we are now beginning to see Mi’gmaq individuals and communities using their lands and waters in ways that our ancestors would find objectionable. This change in values towards the integrity of our territory is a reflection of the lasting legacy of colonialism and assimilation, only hastened by the loss of Mi’gmaq language speakers.

The result is that we Mi’gmaq must make that extra effort to keep the language and culture alive. The only thing holding us back is ourselves. And I understand if this is a touchy subject. I don’t want to put blame on anyone or make people feel shame. Quite the opposite – I want nothing more than to see Mi’gmaq who are beyond proud of who they are and what they have, can, and will accomplish.

I wish to speak to the importance of a recent accomplishment. From my perspective, the Mi’gmaq Language Summer Workshop on Tuesday, August 6, 2013, was an absolute success. The speakers were eloquent, a natural occurrence when our People speak from their hearts. The food was fantastic. 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.

There were two things about this gathering that really caught my attention. The first was witnessing the Mi’gmaq Immersion Nursery students singing traditional songs with Pu’gwales, a local drum group. Not only are these children basically the cutest things ever, it was more than heartwarming to see them take pride in their accomplishments as the next generation of Mi’gmaq speakers. The other thing that piqued my interest was the interaction with Elders during the discussions towards the end of the workshop. I was fortunate enough to have been a moderator/note-taker for a group of roughly a dozen Mi’gmaq women.

I learned a lot about how the Elders feel about the language and how the Youth have or have not taken to it. One discussion in particular touched me on a personal level. Without sharing any names, I would like to relate what I have learned with readers. One of my relations talked about how she was confronted by her daughter one day. The daughter resentfully asked the mother why she had failed to pass her native language onto her at a young age. The mother was left speechless. It caught me off-guard to hear her say such a thing because my experience mirrors that of the mother – not the daughter.

Readers who know me may find this strange because I’m only 24 years young, but take note of what I am about to say. It is my experience, and possibly that of other Youth, that Elders sometimes resent the Youth for not already knowing the language. So we have arrived at a situation where Elders sometimes feel like the Youth resent them for not teaching them the language, while Youth sometimes feel as if the Elders resent them for not having learned the Mi’gmaq language. The level of misunderstanding between these two groups is the result of a breakdown in communication. This realization has bothered me since.

While learning the language in the most practical sense is vitally important, learning to forgive each other inter-generationally is a form of healing that I suspect will facilitate language learning and retention. All I can say is that this language workshop was a step in the right direction and it is critical as Mi’gmaq that we organize and participate in more of them. I believe that the importance of the Mi’gmaq language is the one thing we can all agree upon. And while many of us are busy becoming experts in our respective fields, we can all become experts of the Mi’gmaq language together. An “expert” is defined, by the way, as someone who has spent 10,000 hours on a subject. If you were to take a one-hour Mi’gmaq class every day for a year, it would take over 27 years to “officially” become an expert. While I love my Mi’gmaq classes, I think we can all agree that 27 years is unrealistic.

It is incumbent upon us to seek out avenues whereby we can integrate language into our daily lives. We need to take this issue to formal avenues such as Chief and Council, but also realize that the responsibility lies with us to raise the issue in informal avenues. There’s many ways to do this. Allow me to humbly suggest one. It would be great if people could just greet each other in Mi’gmaq. Those who already speak might discover other speakers and network with them, but speakers might also discover that there are people (Youth, such as myself, in particular) who are trying to learn. Learners need to hear Mi’gmaq spoken to them. They need to be prompted to listen. They need to struggle to understand. They also need to be prompted to speak. This effort can only serve to strengthen our language, our culture, and the bond we share as citizens of this paradise we call Mi’gmagi. Wela’lioq!

Elders and Youth get closer at Mi’gmaq Language Summer Workshop

Although I enjoyed everything at the workshop, the part that I enjoyed the most was the discussions. I loved hearing what the elders in my group had to say. I always assumed that if the elders didn’t think Mi’gmaq was not important enough for their children to know and speak, then it wasn’t important enough to bother learning. My grandparents gave my father the language but he didn’t give it to me and because this is the case for majority of the people in my generation it’s easy to see how our precious language could be lost in just one generation. 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. They do value and care about the language and so do we. We are interested in learning Mi’gmaq and they’re so happy to see that we are taking the initiative. We want to learn our language and they’re willing to meet us halfway if they see that we are trying. I feel more comfortable and more at ease speaking Mi’gmaq to them knowing that they want us to learn. It was nice to clear up the misunderstandings and bring the gap between the generations a little closer.

Computational Field Workshop at McGill

Hisako and Gina presenting about LingSync during day 1 of the work shop.

Hisako and Gina presenting about LingSync during day 1 of the work shop.

Today concluded the two day Computational Field Workshop at McGill University. Plenary speaker Alexis Palmer joined from Saarland University, Germany to talk about her work using computational tools for low-resource languages.

iLanguage Lab along with its collaborators and interns, Hisako Noguchi, Carol Little, Josh Horner, Tobin Skinner, and Louisa Bielig, presented their work in developing the Google Chrome extension and Android App, LingSync. This is particularly useful for field linguists as it store all field data in one secure, customizable, and easy-to-use app. A morning tutorial for the workshop participants was held where they were able to test this app out with data from Quechua.

Erin Olson presenting her work with the Prosody Lab's forced aligner on day 2 of the workshop.

Erin Olson explaining her work with the Prosody Lab’s aligner on day 2 of the workshop.

Robert Henderson also shared his work on using computational tools to clean and analyze texts from SIL bibles translated into Kaqchikel for his work on demonstrative pronouns.

Erin Olson presented her work on using the Prosody Lab’s aligner which aligns text to sound files in Praat. This is a useful tool as it can speed up annotating processes. Scripts for the Prosody Lab Aligner can be found here.

All slides and information from this workshop can be found on the Computational Field Workshop website.

In addition to these great tools, Elise McClay in collaboration with iLanguage Lab is developing a Learn [language] app. This app, still a prototype, will be able to be used in conjunction with LingSync to create customizable languages lessons for any language. Currently there is an example Mi’gmaq lesson on this app. More on this can be found at the Canadian Linguistics Association conference at the University of Victoria, BC. See programme here.

Computational tools, like the aforementioned, can facilitate and accelerate collection and analysis of data from the field. Used in conjunction with native speakers and other researchers such tools can lead to not only better linguistics explanations but also transparency of the research for all parties involved.

Carol, Elise, and Mali-Beth present at L’nui’sultinej

Carol, Elise, and Mali-Beth are presenting today at L’nui’sultinej in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, a conference about Mi’gmaq language education.

Their presentation is called “Student Perspectives on Mi’gmaw Language-Learning through Multi-Modal Teaching: A community-linguistics partnership” and is based on their experiences learning the language and documenting the language course in summer 2012. You can download their slides on the Research page.

Introducing the Comp/Field Workshop

Coming up in two and a half weeks, McGill will be hosting a computational field (linguistics) workshop.

On May 27th, we’ll have two talks and a wine & cheese reception: iLanguage Lab will be presenting about LingSync, and Alexis Palmer, a postdoc working for SEASIDE, will be giving a talk entitled “Computational Linguistics for Low-Resource Languages.”

May 28th, we’ll have two workshops and two talks: iLanguage will host a session entitled “Plugging in to LingSync” and Alexis Palmer will coordinate one focusing on what exactly one should do with field linguistic data. Our talks will be from Erin Olson (presenting on the Prosodylab’s Forced Aligner and its use in segmental analysis) and Robert Henderson (“Reclaiming SIL Bibles for Linguistic Research”).

More details available in our newly-minted workshop section!

L’nui’sultinej Conference 2013

The L’nui’sultinej Conference is the place to be for Mi’gmaq speakers and learners; as such, we are proud to announce that we are planning on going to Antigonish to talk about our projects and our classes!

As the organizers say on their site:

“L’nui’sultinej na tesipunqek mawita’mk wjit Mi’kmaq Kisna ta’n pasik wen ta’n ketu’ kinu’tmasit l’nui’sin kwlaman kisi klo’tesnu ksitunnu iapjiw. Ula mawita’mk wjit msit wen aqq ta’n pasik wen wlta’sualaten.

L’nui’sultinej is an annual conference which brings together Mi’kmaq people from across the Mi’kmaq Nation to look at education issues related to language preservation, enhancement and revitalization. It is a conference for parents youth, elders, community members, educators, administrators, counselors and researchers. We welcome all Mi’kmaq into the circle whatever their level of language proficiency.”

Mali-Beth, Carol, and I (Elise) will be attending the conference to talk about how linguists and speakers and learners can work together, inside and outside a language classroom. We hope to see you there!

Some ICLDC Presentations

This list quickly sums up a few of the presentations I really enjoyed at ICLDC, in no particular order. The days were very packed, so sadly I only got to see a fraction of the interesting talks that were happening from 9-5:30 every day (in 6 different conference rooms!), but hopefully this gives you a quick idea of the types of great conversations and work that is being done by linguists, language revitalizationists, and language conservationists around the world.

  • The Algonquian Online Interactive Linguistic Atlas (Marie-Odile Junker, Nicole Rosen, Hélène St-Onge, Arok Wolvengrey, Mimie Neacappo)
    • This website maps a lot of different dialects of various Algonquian languages, putting equivalent sentences (for instance, translations of “This is my mother.”) side-by-side on the map. You can choose to use the website in English, French, or without colonial languages altogether.
    • All their technology (using Python and MySQL) is open-source and non-proprietary, so this model could easily be adjusted to show language variation in other language families as well.
  • The documentary linguist as facilitator: The view from Trung (Dulong) (Ross Perlin, University of Bern)
    • As linguists we have to find ways of situating our own roles in communities studying languages that we may not speak.
    • One potential model we can draw from is the literature on being a facilitator, placing “a focus on process and group dynamics, impartiality or neutrality, the evoking of participation, trust and consensus-building, and resource aggregation.”
  • Sharing worlds of knowledge: Research protocols for communities (Andria Wilhelm, Universities of Victoria and of Alberta; Connie Cheecham, Northern Lights School District)
    • Copyright law and other legal measures are generally insufficient when it comes to protecting Indigenous communities, specifically with respect to intangible property like linguistic expertise.
    • It is important for researchers to collaboratively form concrete research protocols with their community/the community they are working with!
    • These protocols may address guidelines for principles of respect, ownership & profit, informed consent, access, fixation, and any other facets are relevant to your work.
  • Developing a regional Master-Apprentice training network in Australia (Gwendolyn Hyslop, Australian National University)
    • Last year, Leanne Hinton and others led workshops for representatives from 31 Indigenous language communities in order to instruct them in the best strategies for engaging in the Master-Apprentice Program.
    • They practiced (among other techniques) non-verbal communication, going through wordless books in the language, listening and repetition, immersion sets, talking about modern items/new vocabulary, games for counting, and puppet play.
    • The goal of these sessions was to “train the trainer” and form a network of MAP groups throughout Australia–it was more popular than anticipated, and they had to run 3 workshops instead of the planned 1!
    • People generally found that language pods, where 3-6 people engage in immersion together, felt more comfortable and natural than the usual MAP pair system of a single speaker and a single learner.
      • We should try these out, too! And it would be great to get Leanne Hinton out for a workshop, no?
  • Developing consistency by consensus: Avoiding fiat in language revitalization (Lance Twitchell, University of Alaska Southeast; James Crippen, University of British Columbia)
    • The Tlingit language has a lot of sounds, to put it lightly. Developing an orthography was a bit of a problem, and for a while there were two separate writing systems. Over time, speakers merged the best features of each into what is known as the ‘email’ orthography to some people, a process that happened gradually, by internal consensus rather than external decree.
    • This presentation said that standards should be violable; mistakes should be okay, since a language is owned by everybody who uses it; it is helpful to standardize aspects of the language until wide usage, not after.

Elise, Jessica, and Carol at the 3rd ICLDC at University of Hawai’i

Elise, Carol, and Jessica set off a few days ago to present Student Perspectives on Mi’gmaq Language-Learning through Multi-Modal Teaching: A Community-Linguistics Partnership, a collaborative work by Elise McClay, Carol Little, Mary-Beth Wysote, Madeleine Metallic, Sarah Vicaire, Travis Wysote, Janine Metallic, and Jessica Coon. They presented this poster at the 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation held in Honolulu at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. The theme of this year’s conference is “Sharing Worlds of Knowledge”. People from around the world come to present what they are doing in the realm of language documentation and conservation. Researchers, linguists, teachers, even botanists and physicists, come to learn, share, and contribute their research and perspectives making this truly an interdisciplinary platform for language documentation and conservation.

Elise McClay and Carol Little with poster at ICLDC 2013

Elise McClay and Carol Little with poster at ICLDC 2013

Conference Presentations by the Mi’gmaq Research Partnership

This October was the 44th Algonquian Conference at the University of Chicago. Many of our Mi’gmaq Research Partnership members presented.

Alan Bale and Jessica Coon presented “Classifiers are for numerals, not nouns: Evidence from Mi’gmaq and Chol.” at the 43rd Northeast Linguistics Society (NELS) in New York, NY where Alan also had a poster presentation of “Agreement without AGREE: Disjunction in Mi’gmaq.”

More recently Mike and Gretchen both presented at The 2012-3 Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas (SSILA) in Boston, MA. Mike presented “Against Non-configurationality in Mi’gmaq” and Gretchen “Preverb Ordering in Mi’gmaq”

And stay tuned for Elise and Carol’s poster presentation of “Student perspectives on Mi’gmaq language-learning through multi-modal teaching: A community-linguistics partnership” at the University of Hawai’i’s at the 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation on February 28th.

Returning from the Algonquian Conference

We were well-represented at the 44th Algonquian Conference in Chicago this weekend, with a group talk by Carol, Sarah, Mary-Beth and Elise about the summer Mi’gmaq language course, in addition to individual linguistics talks by Mike, Elise, Gretchen, Erin, and Conor. For more details on the individual talks, check out the Research page, which already has abstracts but will hopefully have handouts soon.

It was a great trip and we met a lot of people. Here are some pictures!