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What role should universities play in revitalizing Indigenous languages?

Scholars in Calgary, Odanak and Edmundston have recently spearheaded research projects on the revitalization of Indigenous languages. But where do universities fit in, and how should they be contributing?


Canadian academics have helped launch a number of initiatives to revitalize Indigenous languages in recent years. They’ve compiled dictionaries, created an online platform to teach the Wolastoqey language, begun studying and documenting Innu vocabulary used to describe the environment and set up an intensive course in Algonquian language teaching methodologies. And when the United Nations educational, scientific and cultural organization announced the Indigenous Languages Decade, the Canadian academic community stepped up with projects to revitalize some of Canada’s 70 Indigenous languages.

(Re)building trust

Yet despite their goodwill, researchers are in a difficult position. “Universities are colonial institutions,” said Mélanie Leblanc, a professor of sociolinguistics at Université de Moncton’s Edmundston campus and co-director of the SQOTESOL research team. “I’m not convinced they should be taking the lead in this matter.”

Instead, academics should create partnerships with communities to better understand and respond to their needs and do so with the utmost respect to research ethics. Jimena Terraza, a linguist at Kiuna College, agreed. She is helping the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh build its own revitalization plan. “It’s not up to me to make the decisions,” she said. “I’m just here to provide an external perspective and offer pointers on what to look out for.”

Resources for all levels of learners

There are plenty of programs to support beginners. However, researchers lament that there is a dearth of resources for speakers who already grasp the basics of their language. “In talking with our Indigenous partners, we realized that few programs were aimed at more advanced learners, and most were in English,” said Dr. Leblanc.

Seeing a need to increase cultural support for the two francophone Maliseet communities, she partnered with the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation and the Wolastoqiyik Wahsipekuk First Nation to set up a Wolastoqey language learning platform called Wiciw (meaning “together with”). Funded by Canadian Heritage, the platform makes language learning more accessible to people who can’t attend classes or don’t have access to classes in their community.

Teaching future generations

Researchers recognize that a university can never take the place of a community. “What you do as an academic isn’t always useful for communities,” said Darin Flynn, a professor of linguistics at the University of Calgary. “Ideally, it’s young children who should be learning the language. Universities can’t help much with that.” Dr. Terraza agreed. “Only speakers can revitalize a language. But universities still have a role to play in teaching others.”

For example, researchers can help train future educators or solidify their language skills. “We have expertise that these communities don’t always have, such as in linguistics, storytelling, or pedagogy,” Dr. Leblanc added.

Young people with university training in linguistics can then use what they’ve learned to support their communities. “The transition through postsecondary education can have a beneficial effect, especially if students reconnect with their identity, which is at the heart of everything,” Dr. Terraza said.

For Marie-Claude L’Homme and Yvette Mollen, working with local stakeholders is also a way to give back to future generations. The professors in the linguistics and translation department at Université de Montréal (U de M) joined forces with the Institut Tshakapesh for
a research project on environmental terminology in the Innu language. Ms. Mollen sees the project as a way for her to give back to future generations. “We need to make sure the elders keep speaking, so the young can learn,” she said. “Language is wealth.”

A demand for resources

One of the challenges researchers encounter is finding proficient speakers, especially in communities where the language is rarely spoken. “There are so few Wolastoqey speakers left, and they’re all involved in multiple projects. Naturally, we’re not necessarily a priority – which makes sense,” Dr. Leblanc said.

Dr. Terraza set up an intensive summer program to try to offset the lack of language resources, bringing together some 50 students from Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi and Kiuna College. Her aim is to train the next generation of speakers how to teach their Algonquian languages (Innu-aimun, Atikamekw Nehiromowin, Anishinaabemowin and Abenaki). “Their languages are increasingly taught in schools,” she said, “but the demand for resources is high. Few people are available to take on the task. It’s a huge problem.”

Visibility and outreach

By supporting local initiatives, “research gives communities the ammunition to bolster their demands to governments,” Dr. Leblanc said. Dr. Flynn believes academics also have a role to play as communicators. “We can work to dispel the myths that cause languages to disappear, the first being that monolingualism is the natural state of things.” He points out that children have the ability to learn multiple languages simultaneously, and that multilingualism is the global norm, not the exception.

University language courses ultimately serve more a symbolic purpose than a practical one. “I don’t think these courses help revitalize languages,” said Ms. Mollen, who teaches Innu-aimun, “because they don’t directly reach the speakers. But they certainly give our communities more visibility, and I am trying to dispel prejudices.”

Revitalize a language, save the culture

Keeping Indigenous languages alive is good for society. When the language thrives, the culture is likely also thriving. “A living language is one that connects children with their grandparents. Focusing on language benefits every member of a community,” said Dr. Flynn.

Dr. L’Homme argued more funding is urgently needed to support communities in their revitalization efforts. “There is an urgent need.” Because otherwise, we risk losing some languages completely. And when a language dies, according to Dr. Leblanc, “we lose an entirely unique way to view the world.”

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