Languages, Linguistics, and Legislation: Some Reflections on Supporting Revitalization Programs in Canada

Sometimes, I am amazed at the opportunities afforded to me by my life and work as an anthropologist. I have just returned home after an 8 day visit to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where I had the opportunity to teach a course on Language Policy and Planning for Indigenous Language Communities, run through the University of Alberta’s CILLDI program. The goal of CILLDI (the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute) is to provide training in linguistics, language planning, and pedagogy to Indigenous communities in Canada in order to support their language documentation and revitalization efforts. Students are typically members of Indigenous communities, either native speakers or learners of their Indigenous languages, working in various capacities to support these languages (many are language teachers, others are coordinators or staff members of language programs or cultural centres, others are translators, some are students, etc). I could talk for a year – and if you know me in person, you may confirm this is true – not only about the value of a program like this for supporting language work, but also about how being involved with CILLDI is a life-changing experience for students and staff alike, but I want to focus here on what I learned from the opportunity to deliver this particular class in Yellowknife.

In order to better serve the needs of Indigenous language communities, and with the support of various funding agencies, CILLDI has increasingly been offering its courses outside of its standard venue (hosted at the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton for three weeks each July). These new versions mean that the instructors come to the students (or closer to them), at various times throughout the year, instead of always having all the students relocate for several weeks in the middle of the summer, often at considerable inconvenience and expense. The course I taught last week was part of a block of three courses organized and funded by the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, which houses their Indigenous Languages and Education Secretariat. Students were from all over the territory and included speakers of Nehiyawewin (Cree), Dene Zhatie (South Slavey), Dene Yati/Sahtu (North Slavey), Gwich’in, Tɫicho, and Inuvialuktun. They were regional language coordinators, language project workers, teachers, translators, and administrative personnel, some were fluent speakers and others were learners, and ranged in age from Elders to a 24-year-old social media guru. It is a truism of any teaching situation that the best part is always the students, but this was a particularly powerful example, as this group brought energy, creativity, and strong knowledge of their languages and communities. They came with different levels of experience and comfort in project planning and thinking big picture about language revitalization, and each one of them took the opportunity to learn something new about how to best do this work.

It’s always incredible to be in a room where there is so much positive energy and a commitment to action in support of language, culture, healing, and Indigenous autonomy, but it was especially so during a week in which the discourse about Indigenous people in this country has been so ugly, so dismissive, and so violent. There is a need to confront all of that awful reality, but there is also a need to be able to take concrete steps toward improving things, whether the rest of the country wants to come along for the ride or not.

It was also an eye-opening experience to have led this course with the direct support of the territorial government, and to spend time with some truly great public servants who are genuinely dedicated to making Indigenous language revitalization work. The NWT has had an official language policy in place since the 1980s, which recognizes 9 Indigenous languages alongside English and French, and which emphasizes the revitalization of these languages as a formal priority of the official languages act. My work in the Brazilian Amazon, where official language policy has also been used as a strategy for revitalization, has made it very clear to me that while such policies can be important symbolic acts, examining how they work and what they mean requires much more careful consideration of how they are being enacted, taken up, and talked about by the local populations (here’s a recent article I wrote about this, apologies for paywall). To say that colonial governments are inevitably fraught with problems in relation to Indigenous peoples and languages is the understatement of the last several centuries, but one thing I saw in Yellowknife was what it can look like if a government actually wants to see Indigenous languages succeed. The primary outcome, for students, of the course is the preparation of a mock (or actual!) grant proposal for a realistic potential project for supporting their language, and in this case, we were able to get a lot of help and guidance about what kinds of projects would have the potential to receive government funding, and how students could reframe their ideas in ways that would strengthen their chances of success.

I admit: “reconciliation” is a Canadian politics buzzword that is eminently critiquable, both in its overall framework (which implies that there was a positive, healthy, mutually sustaining relationship that we will be able to return to, somehow, rather than an entire foundation of violence and theft) and in its incredible overuse (seriously, doesn’t it seem like people throwing a few coins in the cup of a homeless person who appears Indigenous will then write a Facebook status about their contribution to reconciliation?). But with that caveat in mind, I feel like this course was driven by the spirit that the term ‘reconciliation’ should imply. The foundation for this is, in part, the way that Northern Canada operates on a different set of rules than we do here in the South (Ed: South? Shulist: Why yes, it is weird to call Edmonton the South, but all such things are relative). One of those rules is that movement toward Indigenous self-government is much more of a reality, and several groups have either an established agreement or are working towards one. Indigenous languages also have a distinct presence on signage, on the radio, and in other aspects of public life (this could definitely be strengthened, but it is far more significant than in much of the rest of the country). This was my first visit to the North, and there is much that I don’t know, but I learned enough to know that I want to know more, and to think that lots of others should want to know more as well (just because it was -50 one day while I was up there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go! It’s actually totally great).

This is an important moment for Indigenous languages in Canada as a whole, as the Trudeau government is currently developing the research around how to create the Indigenous Languages Act they promised after they were elected, and in light of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sadly, I don’t really have a lot of faith that the federal government is going to create something truly meaningful with this act. I think such an act has the potential to be an important symbol, and while I’m definitely not someone who dismisses symbolic change as meaningless, I think that the primary goal of any Indigenous language revitalization legislation at the federal or provincial/territorial levels should be to get the funding in to the hands of Indigenous people who can do the work of making their languages viable again. And in order to do this most effectively, a genuine commitment to Indigenous self-government is needed. Language programs that rely too much on expensive, university-based resources and researchers*, that are incredibly narrow and specific in their requirements, and that create endless mounds of paperwork people must do, are doing everything they can not to actually work on language revitalization. While this may be the topic of another post (because complicated), we also need to seriously engage with the ways in which official bilingualism and the political influence of French influences our ability to focus attention on the needs of Indigenous languages and communities (again apologies for the academic paywall, but this article by Eve Haque and Donna Patrick, if you have access, is a great primer on this). It is true that the federal government has made funding available through programs like the Aboriginal Languages Initiative, but I’ll leave it to the reader to consider whether the process and requirements outlined on that website really make this opportunity accessible to those that need it.

I left Yellowknife feeling really invigorated, but also angry. Invigorated because the students did such excellent work, and because I think there is the real possibility that their projects will get support, and because taking action to support change is so much better than sitting in the narrative of decay and death in which we ‘tsk tsk’ about

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Your friendly neighbourhood linguist blogger outside the best-named business in Yellowknife, featuring multilingual English/Tlicho wordplay

language loss without ever attacking it as a problem. But angry because throughout Canada, the political story remains one in which Indigenous people and communities are portrayed as incompetent and incapable, requiring oversight and paternalistic intervention. This emerges from both the left and the right, with the difference being that the right places the causes in some kind of cultural dysfunction or backwardness, while the left acknowledges the role of colonialism, but still situates the pathology in Indigenous communities, with the solutions coming from benevolent outsiders. This obviously isn’t just about language revitalization, but that’s my entry point in to it. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get out of the damn way enough to enable real change, but I want to believe that it’s possible. At the very least, we can look to the North for some paths to improvement.

*Yes, this includes me. We definitely have a role to play in this, but we don’t belong at the centre.

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Conscious Word Creation

Members of primarily English-speaking communities (and those of many other large, widely-spoken, culturally dominant languages) rarely encounter a situation in which their language doesn’t have a word for something they need to say. Sure, there are the proverbial “untranslatable” words (which is a whole other thing to unpack, really), but English does have a word for the German-associated emotional concept of ‘schadenfreude’. It’s schadenfreude. If the term can be the title and central focus of a Broadway song, it’s pretty thoroughly integrated into our lexicon. In any case, when we encounter a situation where we don’t feel like we have a word for something, we borrow it, or we make one up. All speakers are essentially able to make words up; the question of whether they are taken up broadly and clearly enough to really ‘count’ as lexical items in that language is the one that dictionary-makers wrestle with constantly (I will almost certainly have a post about whatever word becomes the cause of outcry when it is authenticated as a ‘real word’ by Oxford, or Websters, or whatever, next year).

Speakers of very small languages have a fundamentally different experience. One of the defining features of a language that is losing ground to one or more dominant others is that it becomes used in fewer and fewer domains or contexts. It is less likely to be spoken in schools, in political leadership, in media, in business, in courts of law, in medical centres, etc. A common goal of language revitalization and reclamation is to bring it back into all areas of life for its speakers. In trying to do this, speakers and learners often encounter situations in which no one knows the word for a given concept – in some cases because it never existed (like with words for newer technology) and in some cases because it’s been forgotten as no one has used the language in those domains for several generations. In these cases, the stakes are different – borrowing words from the dominant language might be fine, sometimes, or for some languages, but there is often the (legitimate) fear that this will simply result in the complete use of those dominant languages because they’re ‘easier’. Inventing new words can be fine, but usually, there isn’t the body of speakers who can take the word for a test drive and see if it works in context; in addition, many communities have different beliefs about who has the authority to create new contributions to the language (it may be Elders, it may be a group of local linguists, it may be a community as a whole). The values that inform what makes one form a ‘good’ representation of its meaning are often deeply rooted in the cultural framework.

All this is to lead up to what I think is an especially lovely example of conscious, considered word creation, discussed in this short article about New Maori words for disabilities and mental health conditions. The story describes the specific words for ‘autism’ as translating directly as ‘his/her own time and space’ and for what we call ‘disability’ as ‘to have ability, otherly abled, enabled’. It clearly describes the values underlying these choices – consultation with the community of people the words describe, with the goal of having them feel inclusion, safety, and lack of judgment from their potential health caregivers. It also drop some information between the lines about how both Maori language and whanau health are being addressed as parts of a broader approach to improvement in their lives. Language development is a process incorporated within mental health initiatives, not one that is being done by linguists and then stapled on to these other concerns. In other words, language is embedded in understandings of health and wellbeing, and in treatment for health concerns. In addition, the ‘preferred language’ of Maori is being welcomed into these domains, so even where people may be fluently bilingual, they are able to access vital services that support their greatest vulnerabilities based on preference and comfort.

At the same time, there are elements of the process that tweak my anthropological eye, notably that the idea of ‘autism’ is treated as a straightforward, translatable concept, without addressing the implications of such a diagnosis as a socially-embedded phenomena. Some insights from medical anthro would be very welcome here. There’s also the pattern of reporting the ‘meaning’ of newly invented terms using the more literal gloss into English. Obviously, this is a phenomenon based in the use of English for reporting, but its widespread prevalence deserves more scrutiny than it gets. This isn’t to return to the ‘untranslatability’ trope mentioned above, but it is to note that translation is much more nuanced than this framing might suggest. There is often a notion that by presenting these kinds of glosses, we English speakers are able to gain a clear insight into the cultural world of speakers of these languages, when that strikes me as dismissive of the full weight of socially embedded meaning. This makes sense for short, journalistic reports, of course, but is something I see in more academic work in the area, and it is definitely something we need to think about changing.

(PS. Shortly after I bookmarked this post, I saw someone tweet about disliking the word for autism in one of the Canadian Indigenous languages – I believe it was Anishnaabemowim – but my internet research skills are suffering from summer atrophy and I lost it. If anyone knows anything about words for these concepts in other Indigenous languages, I would be very interested in expanding this discussion).