What if you woke up one day and your language was gone?
Sure, you could speak another language, one that all your friends and co-workers could also speak. But your mother tongue, all the words that connected you to your culture, was gone, written down nowhere, vanished.
For many people who speak indigenous languages across the globe, this is not simply a “what if” question. According to National Geographic, one language goes extinct every 14 days, and nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages currently spoken will disappear in the coming decades. This is a particularly challenging problem in the case of languages which have only an oral tradition, no books or even an alphabet.
The issue of language extinction in Canada is one that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission examined as part of its mandate. The report released in late 2015 includes a number of call-to-action recommendations related to preserving indigenous languages including that the federal government provide sufficient funds for aboriginal language revitalization and preservation, and that the work should reflect the full range of aboriginal languages and be managed by aboriginal people and communities.
Fortunately, the process of preserving several Canadian aboriginal languages is already underway. One such venture is taking place in the Ojibwe communities of the Rainy River district in northwestern Ontario. It’s a collaboration between the Seven Generations Education Institute, a 30-year-old educational entity governed by the 10 First Nations in the Fort Frances and Kenora area, and Say It First, a company that uses “technology and community participation to modernize, expand, revitalize and localize aboriginal languages in Canada, and to help our First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities produce more language speakers tomorrow, than exist today.”
Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Ojibwe, is a language without a written tradition. So, one of the challenges that Brent Tookenay, CEO of Seven Generations Education Institute, and Mike Parkhill, founder of Say It First, faced was to develop a functional and acceptable way of writing words in Anishinaabemowin. They decided to take a phonetic approach and, after some initial resistance, they received tremendous support from the Ojibwe community.
Among the projects on which Parkhill and Tookenay have collaborated is a series of children’s books where the cover image can be captured by an iPhone to trigger a link to a spoken version of the story.
It’s this link between new technology and ancestral knowledge that Tookenay believes is key to the success of this program. As he tells Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer, “First Nations students are no different from other students.” Using technology to create a bridge to the Ojibwe language meets students where they want to learn.
Kootenay says, “Part of the success of this is that the First Nations communities and elders are helping drive this, so they have ownership of it. I think one of the things that’s missed in the education system over the years is a lot of our First Nations communities and indigenous people weren’t part of the solution. They weren’t part of what goes on in designing curriculum.”
Kiwanuka asks: What gets lost when language dies? “Basically, the culture is gone. Basically they’re no longer the people they are,” Tookenay says. “Their ancestors really don’t exist anymore. If the language is lost then you’re just assimilated into the English language and there is no more culture. And that’s a scary thought.”
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