Revitalizing endangered languages

Learning opportunities for Indigenous languages in Quebec

February 21 marked the United Nations’ International Mother Language Day, a day to celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The languages currently spoken by Indigenous peoples in Canada are among the most diverse in the world, with over 60 different responses recorded in the 2011 census. Though this may seem like a large number, Canada’s linguistic diversity is diminishing, with 16 of those languages severely endangered, and 31 languages rated as critically endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. These languages, incompletely and infrequently spoken by the grandparent generation and older, are on the brink of extinction.

Though these statistics paint a grim picture, several efforts at language revitalization have had success in producing new native speakers of endangered languages. Language nests, which are immersion-based early childhood language education programs, have been successful in many communities in danger of losing their language. The idea originated during Maori revitalization efforts in New Zealand, and has been implemented in Hawaii and across Australia.

In Canada, these programs exist in several provinces and territories, including British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. The latter has over 20 nests, covering all the official Aboriginal languages of the territory. Aliana Parker, Language Revitalization Program Specialist at the First Peoples’ Cultural Council in British Columbia, highlighted some of the challenges associated with developing language nest programs. “Most of the languages have only a handful of speakers left, all of whom are elders. So it’s really hard to create a full immersion environment, as it can be challenging to have the elders in the nest for a long enough period of time, or [to find] other speakers who are younger, and […] who are able to speak the language and work in the nest.”

Kahnawà:ke is a Mohawk community located across the river from Montreal on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. There, Step By Step Child and Family Centre is a grassroots organization that offers early childhood education and daycare programs with language components in Mohawk. One of the Centre’s main objectives is to provide early intervention programs to support preschoolers’ development alongside culturally relevant education. The Summer Mohawk Immersion Program, which first piloted in 2008, is designed for three-year-olds to gain enough knowledge of the language to continue their schooling in Mohawk. The program has proven to be so successful, growing from one or two children to 11, that a Mohawk immersion daycare program is in the works.

Debbie Delisle, executive director of Step By Step, says that, “There’s not that many speakers [of Mohawk] left in our community so the revival of our language is paramount.” Delisle adds that people start to realize the importance early childhood investment has for the future of language and culture, which became the foundation of the programming at Step by Step. “We used to have a curriculum [that was] very basic. […] Then we started learning more about our own culture, because we had a lot of learning to do too because of our history. […] Today, our curriculum is culture and language, and we incorporate activities into that,” says Delisle.

Language nests are effective because they target young children during the ideal developmental stage for language learning. Immersion-based programs have had widespread success in producing fluent speakers of endangered languages. As Delisle says, “All the literature says that from zero to six is the most critical part of a child’s life because it builds the foundation to where they’re going to be in the future.” In April 2014, a new language nest will be starting in Kahnawà:ke. The project, entitled Iakwahwatsiratátie (which translates to “Our Families Are Continuing”), is headed by Karihwakátste Cara Deer and Ieronhienhawi McComber, and has received federal funding from the Aboriginal Head Start program.

Deer explained that there was a previous language nest program in Kahnawà:ke from 2005 to 2007, but it stopped mainly due to lack of funding. Meanwhile Deer and McComber planned to revive the nest by researching other language nest programs, applying for funding and learning more of their language. When asked why preserving Mohawk is important, Deer said, “It’s at the core of what defines us. […] Our language is deeply rooted within our culture as well as within our ceremonies and our ways of life.”

Parker observed that, “We’re beginning to see more and more evidence of when students are able to participate in a language immersion program in their mother tongue or their cultural language. It has huge positive impacts on their academic and social success, health, and well-being.”

In Montreal, there are a few opportunities available for adults to learn Indigenous languages. In early 2013, the Avataq Cultural Institute began offering Inuktitut language classes in Montreal. In the fall of the same year, First Peoples’ House began to offer informal Mi’gmaq classes. Paige Isaac, First Peoples’ House Coordinator, said, “The classes started because there is a large enough group of Mi’gmaq students and staff at McGill and in Montreal, and we had a fluent speaker amongst us.” Yet, learning the language in Montreal has its challenges, said Isaac. “There are basically no opportunities to speak the language in Montreal except for this class so far. You need fluent speakers and I only know two at McGill – which is great, but I need to learn more first.”

In February, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced “an historic agreement” with the Assembly of First Nations to reform the First Nations education system. According to Harper’s website, the legislation aims to establish a statutory funding regime, including language and culture, in the curriculum, while recognizing that “First Nations are best placed to control First Nations education.”

The reform, however, is not welcome everywhere – on December 18, 2013, the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) of Kahnawà:ke published a position statement rejecting the proposed legislation and demanding that the government “immediately cease all actions related to [its] development, passage and implementation.” One of the many reasons for this is the trauma endured in the residential schools system, which has demonstrated to the community “the severe harm that can come to our children and community with external control of education.”

As Tiffany Harrington, a U2 student at McGill, says, “You have a whole worldview within a language and it’s something that socializes you and ties you in relation with people and land.” If language education is not a priority within the First Nations Education Act, then the already fragile linguistic diversity in Canada will be placed under even more pressure.