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Bringing Indigenous languages back to life

McGill supports Indigenous efforts to preserve languages  

Indigenous dancing at McGill Pow Wow

McGill PhD student Kahtehrón:ni Iris Stacey worked hard to learn the Mohawk language as an adult.

She sought out elders in Kahnawà:ke, across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, to build her knowledge of Kanien'kéha.

She attended an adult immersion program in Kahnawà:ke and co-founded a “language nest” for parents to gather with young children to learn the language together.

“I grew up in the Longhouse. It was a message that was always shared with us through our elders,” Stacey says. “They were always encouraging us and telling us the importance of learning our language so that our ceremonies can continue in the language that it’s meant to be in.”

Stacey, who won a prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, is doing her doctoral research on Indigenous language revitalization in McGill’s Faculty of Education.

Language preservation is a huge concern for Indigenous communities in Canada and beyond. The United Nations declared 2019 The Year of Indigenous Languages.

Many of the surviving Aboriginal languages in Canada are under serious threat because of residential schools, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in its final report. Aboriginal students were punished, “often severely”, for speaking their languages at residential schools. 

“The damage affected future generations, as former students found themselves unable or unwilling to teach their own children Aboriginal languages and cultural ways,” the report said.

“I would say now it’s really at a crucial point,” says Janine Metallic, an Assistant Professor in McGill’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education, who is from the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation.

In an informal count a few years ago, her mother and aunt, who both teach Mi’gmaq, counted “no more than 400 speakers” out of nearly 4,000 Listuguj community members, says Metallic.

“I think now people are realizing that we may be one generation away from completely losing the language…We have a few younger speakers, but it’s a handful of people.”

However, Metallic added that with the ongoing language revitalization efforts in her community and elsewhere, she is hopeful that the use of Indigenous languages will grow. 

Universities as allies

Inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Actions, the Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education proposed a reconciliation plan for McGill.

“McGill should consider where it can add the most value to language teaching and revitalization in Indigenous communities, while heeding the perspectives and needs of Indigenous communities as voiced by their members,” the final report of the Provost’s task force said in one of its 52 calls to action.

McGill’s Department of Linguistics and the Office of First Nations and Inuit Education held a symposium in May 2018 to look at what role universities can play in Indigenous language maintenance and revitalization. The gathering on campus and in Kahnawà:ke included Indigenous language teachers, scholars, activists – and Stacey, who gave the keynote.

A consistent message was that “universities can be allies to Indigenous communities in their efforts of language reclamation, revitalization, and maintenance,” said the vision paper from the symposium.

Communities are taking great steps and making amazing progress to revitalize and promote the importance of their languages, says Stacey, who is also a curriculum developer at the Kahnawà:ke Education Centre.

“I think that universities need to have a really close relationship with the community to really determine…the things that they should offer, not only to entice [Indigenous students] to attend, but to really reflect the tools and skills that are needed to do what we want to do in our communities.”

Stacey and Metallic have received a grant for a community-driven research project in Kahnawà:ke involving linguistic archives and adult Mohawk second-language learners who want to reach a mastery level of proficiency.

“Part of this project is really looking at how can we better support these language learners” who want to continue passing on the language, says Metallic. “Looking at research again through a different lens to kind of say what can we do with research to make it very practical to support language revitalization?”

McGill is increasing capacity in Indigenous language revitalization. The Department of Linguistics and the Faculty of Education are looking to hire an indigenous scholar who specializes in the area. The hiring is part of an ongoing effort at McGill to recruit Indigenous faculty members – a key recommendation in the Provost’s report.

The Department and Faculty have also created an ad hoc master’s program in Indigenous language revitalization for an incoming First Nations student.

“We hope that this could turn into something larger,” says Jessica Coon, an Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics.

McGill and Indigenous partners train future teachers, language specialists

McGill’s Office of First Nations and Inuit Education (OFNIE) in the Faculty of Education has long partnered with First Nations and Inuit education authorities in Quebec to deliver teacher education programs in Indigenous communities. 

One of the in-community offerings is the Certificate in Education FNIE program, a 60-credit program that qualifies graduates to teach in Indigenous communities.

“It’s been our longest-running program,” says Stephen Peters, OFNIE’s Assistant Director. McGill has been delivering the program, or variants of it, for decades with the Kativik Ilisarniliriniq and Cree school boards.

“In the Cree territory and in Nunavik, all our courses are delivered either in Cree or in Inuktitut,” says Peters.

“These programs are supporting the maintenance of those languages in the community.”

In June, more than three dozen Cree students graduated from McGill with a Certificate in Education FNIE, Culture and Language Specialization. A new cohort of Cree students is pursuing the same in-community program. “It is specifically for Cree language and Cree culture teachers,” explains Jim Howden, OFNIE’s Director.

Stacey, a graduate of the Certificate in Education FNIE program, recalls how the two Kanien'kéha (Mohawk language) courses she took made a big difference in her learning.

“That’s where I really saw – there was a system to the language, with grammar and morphology. That was something as an independent learner, it was really new to me.”

With its Indigenous partners, McGill also currently offers a Bachelor of Education program to a cohort of students in Listuguj and Kahnawà:ke.

The 30-credit Certificate in Indigenous Language and Literacy Education is primarily designed for Indigenous students in community who will be teaching their Indigenous language.

“It’s very popular and very successful,” says Howden.

Success stories in language revitalization

Language shift can happen quickly, says Coon from McGill’s Linguistics Department.

“People talk about three generations where a typical scenario is you have one generation that fluently speaks the language,” Coon says. But their children may be required to only learn or speak English in school and become “passive understanders” of their mother tongue – they answer their parents and speak with their friends in English – and don’t pass it on to their children.

“So it really just takes that middle generation. It’s not necessarily a long, drawn-out process,” Coon says of losing a language.

“And the problem may also not be immediately obvious because the middle generation understands the language. They might answer in it sometimes, so people don’t immediately think ‘Oh no!’ But then if they’re not passing it on to their kids, that’s where it stops.”

There are success stories in Indigenous language revitalization. Coon points to successful efforts to revitalize the Hawaiian language as well as the Māori language in New Zealand, which promoted the language nest program for young children now being used in communities worldwide.

Language revitalization is complex and requires a holistic approach, Coon says. “There needs to be a real multi-pronged approach to getting the language out in the community. It requires more than just teaching the language – it requires creating spaces for the language to be spoken.”

The proportion of Aboriginal-language speakers in Canada, who learned it as a second language, rose from 18 per cent in 1996 to 26 per cent in 2016, according to Statistics Canada.

Stacey spearheaded a five-year plan for language revitalization in Kahnawà:ke where she says there are many second-language adult speakers because of the adult immersion program.

“Some new first language speakers [are] also emerging as a result of all these efforts,” she says.

Intergenerational language in the home is a focus for the community, Stacey says.

“We’re starting to have those conversations and really look at it thoughtfully and critically about what our next steps are and how we can continue the good things happening, but to really build on that.”

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