Junker and her team are working on innovative digital resources to facilitate the preservation and use of Indigenous languages, mainly in Quebec, including dictionaries of Atikamekw, East Cree, Innu and Algonquin languages, as well as other teaching and learning tools. Their linguistic atlas, for example, is an interactive map of North American Indigenous languages that gives users access to 21 topics of conversation addressed in 16 languages by 52 speakers. “It was intended originally as a self-teaching tool,” Junker says, “but it is being used inventively in lots of different ways, as for example, by Blackfoot speakers in a language camp as an instructional aid.”
When it was first launched in 2007, the atlas attracted 4,000 users, but quickly reached 55,000 users a year. “Between 2015 and 2016, there was another precipitous escalation to 99,000 users,” Junker says.
In a similar fashion, her online Innu dictionary was used to look up the meanings of more than 75,000 words in the first half of 2016 alone, she reports. “I do see an enormous explosion of interest, and I see that as positive, especially among communities which have lost their languages and want them back.” Junker’s efforts to help preserve endangered Indigenous languages recently earned her a Governor General’s Innovation Award.
Vicki Monague’s go-to tech is the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, a searchable, talking Ojibwe dictionary that features the voices of Ojibwe speakers. “It’s my bible,” she says. She also visits KUMD.org, the website for a radio station in Duluth, Minn., which posts Ojibwe-language content. “That teaches me to hear. And since too few of my age peers are able to converse with me, I reach out to a big community of Ojibwe speakers through social media. I’m Facebook friends with Ojibwe speakers all over northern Ontario and the States.”
If a language’s survival depends, in part, on its capacity “to talk about the world we live in,” as Junker puts it, many Indigenous languages are already evolving, creating new nouns by combining words from the existing vocabulary to describe the function of new phenomena. According to Mike Parkhill, founder of SayITFirst, an Indigenous language revitalization organization based in Halifax, the word for “computer” in Inuktitut, literally translated, is “the box that thinks.” In Mohawk, there is no word for “box,” so “computer” is “the vessel that communicates.” Among the Passamaquoddy people in New Brunswick and Maine, a computer is “that f—ing thing that pisses me off” (a description that may resonate). The Ojibwe word for “computer” is “the place where teenagers go to gossip.”
As to the more fundamental question: Why even try to save a dying language? University of Toronto linguistics professor Keren Rice says that the revitalization of language can have a huge impact on the problems that haunt many Indigenous communities. “Speaking their first language can be a sort of medicine,” says Rice, who was named a Canada Research Chair in Linguistics and Aboriginal Studies in 2003. Rice, who is not Indigenous, spent four decades studying the Dene language of the Northwest Territories and has been deeply involved in work to maintain and revitalize it. This has not been merely a career-long academic exercise. She is convinced of the power for good arising from the desire to cultivate and nourish Indigenous languages.
“There is empirical evidence to show that language exposure can be critically positive. Crisis and youth suicide rates are lower [in communities] where kids are exposed to their first language,” she says, citing a 2007 study on Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide.
“Also,” Rice says, referencing a 2012 study of Aboriginal language and school outcomes, “where some kids are exposed to their language and some are not, the kids getting exposure are doing better academically.”
Parkhill, also non-Indigenous, is convinced that language is key. “I got bit by [that conviction] at age 46 when I found out I could help,” he says. Until then, he had worked for Microsoft Corporation as director of the academic sector. His job with Microsoft was to facilitate the marriage of Windows and MS Office to the Indigenous languages of the Far North. He left Microsoft in 2009 — impelled by what he came to see as a “race against time” for the remaining Indigenous languages — to work for and with First Nations to preserve and revitalize endangered languages using computer technology. Following the Indigenous method of coining new terms, he calls what he does “Indigitization.” His projects include Sesame Street-style videos available on YouTube, mainly in Indigenous languages of Eastern Canada: Mi’kmaw, Maliseet and Ojibwe.
Parkhill also writes and illustrates children’s books. Hide and Peek, for example, has been translated into seven Indigenous languages, including Southern Tutchone. That version features William, a moose, hunting for his son, George. (The characters’ names honour Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and his son, Prince George. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attended the launch in September 2016. The Prince’s Charities Canada helped fund the book’s creation.)
Kwanlin Dün elder Lorraine Allen translated Parkhill’s text into Southern Tutchone and also voiced the story for SayITFirst’s app, which lets readers see and hear native speakers say the words as they read along with Parkhill’s books. Hide and Peek was given to each schoolchild, Indigenous or not, in Whitehorse from kindergarten to Grade 3.
Kwanlin Dün band councillor Sean Smith has read the book with his children, and he appreciates the app. His own language skills are just “intermediate,” he admits, “but growing.” When he was young, he started learning from his grandmother. His own mother lost her language in residential school, where she was taught to think of it as “a limiting factor,” Smith says. His great-grandfather hid his grandmother from the residential school agents and raised her in the bush, and so she proudly retained her ancestral tongue. The fact that his ancestral tongue could cease to exist as elders die is definitely on his mind; his grandmother died in 2010 at age 82.
Smith’s goal is “fluent young speakers,” he says. He pins his hopes on immersion-style schools. Technology can help too. “It’s good for engaging young people,” he says. “Young people are tech-savvy, and they’ll utilize whatever they can get.”
Despite media hype, some experts warn not to put too much stock in technology. “If you’re thinking this [technology itself] is going to save the language, [my response is] no,” says Keren Rice. “It may be an instrument, but it’s not enough. Just because you computerize, that, in and of itself, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll save the language. It’s people choosing to use it, however they choose to use it.”
Rice wonders about the goals people attach to language revitalization. Full fluency is a goal “for some,” she says, “but for others, the goals have to do with establishing a sense of who one is and where they come from. Many speak of language as medicine, or as something that can help with healing from trauma.”
Rice reflects, “For many, whatever they can say or understand in their language is a sign of health, whether it is introducing themselves, saying a prayer, helping an elder [or] using social media. . . . These are all important, and perhaps can be called victories.”
Sean Smith recalls that his grandmother, who was hidden in the Yukon bush to protect her language and culture, once told him, pragmatically, that he needs to “have a care to keep one foot in western culture and the other in my own culture and traditions.”
For her part, Monague, along with her laptop, perseveres. Registered full time in the Anishnaabemowin (Ojibwe language) program at Georgian College in Barrie, Ont., she wins scholarships, earns bursaries and makes the dean’s list every semester. Her youngest son, Dominique, 13, already speaks the language as well as she does. And that, she believes, is a good thing.
Richard Wright is an ESL teacher and freelance journalist in Toronto.
This story first appeared in The United Church Observer's October 2017 issue with the title "Language lifeline."
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