Saving Endangered Languages

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How one Mohawk community is reclaiming culture by revitalizing its mother tongue.

Written by
Samantha Edwards

When Brian Maracle moved back to the Six Nations of the Grand River in 1993, the only people speaking Mohawk, the native language, were a handful of elderly residents, who usually only used it on the phone with other family members. In a community of 12,000, Maracle says fewer than 50 people could speak Mohawk. The language had almost completely faded away.

Now 24 years later, it’s everywhere. Teenagers speak it in cafés and stores. They use it on Facebook. You can hear it at public council meetings and at the newly established Mohawk longhouse, one of five in the community that act as cultural centres. For some children on the reserve, Mohawk is their first language.

Language is crucial to cultural identity. It shapes our sense of self and gives us pride. When a language falls out of normal use or even disappears, it can destroy a people’s understanding of who they are. For Canada’s First Nations communities, using and relearning their native languages helps heal the multigenerational trauma caused by the residential school system.

In Canada, there are more than 70 Indigenous languages spoken across the country. All are endangered. In British Columbia alone, there are more than 30 Indigenous mother tongues. Nearly all of them are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people. In response to the Truth and Reconciliation call to action underlying the urgency of preserving Indigenous languages, the Liberal government is in the midst of consulting with First Nations leaders to develop legislation to protect these threatened languages.

People want to learn these languages because it makes them feel whole.

The resurgence of Kanyen’kéha — the Mohawk language — on the Six Nations reserve can largely be credited to Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa, an adult immersion Mohawk language school near Brantford, Ontario. Since Brian Maracle and his wife, Audrey, founded it in 1999, more than 100 students have graduated from the two-year program. It’s been so successful in creating proficient speakers that other Indigenous groups across North America have adopted the school’s teaching methods.

Maracle was born on the Six Nations reserve, and lived there until he was six. After living throughout New York state and southern Ontario, Maracle moved to Ottawa, where he worked as a journalist and hosted the CBC radio program Our Native Land for more than 20 years. He then decided to move back to Six Nations so he could learn Mohawk. But it wasn’t easy. “My parents knew a few words here and there, but it was pretty well lost in my family,” says Maracle. He couldn’t find a language course that worked, so he founded his own school. In that first year, the average students were middle-aged grandmothers. Nowadays, they’re teenagers right out of high school.

“Young people are removed from the language. They usually don’t have parents who speak it and now they want to learn it for themselves, or some have little attachment to the culture if they didn’t grow up on the reserve,” says Maracle. “People want to learn these languages because it makes them feel whole. It helps them connect to the community.”

According to the latest census data, more young people are learning Indigenous languages as their second language. Since 2006, there was a 3.1 percent increase in the overall number of Indigenous people who reported being able to speak an Indigenous language.

Non-Indigenous Canadians are learning these languages too. Last June, Canadian Member of Parliament Marc Miller stood up in the House of Commons and delivered a brief speech in Mohawk. Never before had the language been spoken in Canada’s Parliament. He learned how to speak it through an Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa online course.

Originally, only Miller’s family knew he was learning the language, so when he nally told his colleagues, they were initially taken aback but quickly became supportive when they realized he’d been studying for months. After he recited his speech, the Indigenous community was equally supportive.

“[Learning a language] breaks down a tremendous number of barriers. It allows me to have a more genuine conversation a lot quicker,” says Miller. “I didn’t know this from the onset, but I discovered it’s the most significant way of understanding the way the mind works. It’s been a way for me to understand what’s gone on in the community because of the historical stripping of the language, and the wounds that still exist.”

For Maracle, he believes language strengthens communities and builds personal resilience. “We’re very conscious that many of the things we now regard as some sort of ‘Indian identity’ were things that were given to us. ‘Here, you guys can have this land here because the rest of the country doesn’t want it. You can have this Indian Status card,’” says Maracle.

“All of those things can be taken away. They can always take away our so-called rights and privileges, but if you have the language, that can’t be taken away.”

Source: UNESCO Endangered Languages

Languages by Degree of Endangeredness

According to the 2012 National Geographic article, one language dies every 14 days. They estimate that “by next century, nearly half of the 7,000 languages spoken on earth will likely disappear, as communities abandon native tongues in favour of English, Mandarin, or Spanish.”

UNESCO has collected data on the number of individuals speaking endangered languages. They have developed a classification system to show how “in trouble” specific ones are, ranging from “Safe” to “Extinct.” A language is considered endangered when its speakers cease to use it, use it in fewer domains, and stop passing it on to the next generation. The totally number of speakers generally had less effect on a language’s degree of endangeredness, compared to how many generations speak each language.

Samantha Edwards

Samantha is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. She has written for The Globe and Mail, NOW magazine, Toronto Life, Chatelaine and Canadian Living.

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