‘If something can be described, it can be named’

Language Revitalization

‘If something can be described, it can be named’

Queen’s researcher Nathan Brinklow is working to revitalize and reclaim the Mohawk language – an effort that began with his own journey to learn the words of his grandmother.

By Kayla Dettinger, Special Projects Officer

November 8, 2023


Thanyehténhas Nathan Brinklow, Director of the Indigenous Studies Program, speaks on behalf of the Indigenous community in Kanyen’kéha (Mohawk) and English during the 2023 Polishing the Chain ceremony.

Thanyehténhas Nathan Brinklow, Director of the Indigenous Studies Program, speaks on behalf of the Indigenous community in Kanyen’kéha (Mohawk) and English during the 2023 Polishing the Chain ceremony. The annual ceremony revisits the promise of the Tehontatenentsonterontáhkhwa (Friendship Wampum Belt) presented to Queen’s by the Clan Mothers of Tyendinaga and the Grandmothers’ Council of Katarokwi to proactively recognize and renew the ongoing relationship between the university and Indigenous communities.

Language revitalization is not possible without culture. Learning a language offers a window into how past speakers engaged with the world, articulating their thoughts and feelings as they encountered things for the first time. Turtle Clan from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Thanyehténhas Nathan Brinklow, Director of the Indigenous Studies Program at Queen’s, is working to revitalize and reclaim Kanyen’kéha (Mohawk language) by bringing his own experience to his teaching and studying of Mohawk, particularly for adult learners.

Brinklow’s interest in the language stemmed from his relationship with his grandmother who would sing “Mohawk Hymns” with him as a young man, even though neither of them spoke the language. Having grown up in a community that had largely lost its heritage language as an everyday spoken language, he learned Kanyen’kéha at Shatiwennakará:tats, the intensive adult language program at Tyendinaga. There he now teaches several Mohawk language and culture courses alongside those he offers at Queen’s as part of the interdisciplinary Indigenous Studies program.

In this interview with the Gazette, Brinklow delves into his work supporting language revitalization and his personal language journey.

How do language and culture work together to reveal how speakers have interacted with the world?

Language and culture are inextricably linked in the real world, and so language revitalization and teaching are as much about culture and worldview as they are about grammar and vocabulary. I am constantly reaching into our well of stories as I teach to shed light on what the students are learning. The stories help to layer additional meaning onto what might seem like a simple piece of vocabulary.

Since our words are typically made up of many small parts all interacting with each other, we can also break down complex words to see the picture being painted by the individual parts. The practice reveals not only a better understanding of the word, but the worldview of the people who created that specific word, based on what they saw, felt, or thought when they used it for the first time. In Kanyen’kéha, if something can be described, it can be named. So, the ways that people chose to describe something tells us about what they actually saw, allowing us some small way to see through the eyes of the old people.

"My work is just a small part of a puzzle that is larger than this country."

– Thanyehténhas Nathan Brinklow

Director, Indigenous Studies Program

Thanyehténhas Nathan Brinklow

Has your experience as an adult learner guided your work on second language acquisition methods?

Learning any language as an adult can be an artificial process. To learn a language as a child is a gold-standard not easily reproduced because of the linguistic and cultural interference we have from our first language(s) when studying a new one. However, while children learn a language because they are biologically and developmentally pushed to communicate, adults have the ability to choose and make a commitment to learning a language. This can be an advantage.

While the process is more complicated or more artificial, the motivation factor can be a major advantage for adults who can also access different resources to support their learning. While some methods seem more effective than others for building proficiency, no method can replace a consistent and intentional approach to learning.

Could you elaborate on how community-based activities and your collaborations with Mohawk-first language speakers have guided your research on reclaiming and revitalizing language?

My first two language teachers at Tyendinaga have both gone on to the spirit world. Tekahonwensere’kénha (the late Mel Diabo) spent many years of his ‘retirement’ travelling back and forth from his home community of Kahnawà:ke. He was an extraordinary storyteller and constantly encouraged his students through humour and his good-words to keep our language alive. Karihwawishon’kénha (the late Joe Brown) was a second-language learner who spent the short time he was given reclaiming the language for himself and ensuring it was passed on to countless students in our community. They both worked to make sure that our language would continue being spoken so that we, Kanyen’kehá:ka (Mohawk people) would continue existing. These two teachers, along with the other first-language speakers I’m privileged to count as teachers and friends, and people like my gramma who were never given the gift of Kanyen’kéha, motivate me to continue whatever small work I can do to ensure our words continue to be spoken.

Plans in Indigenous Studies

In a recent paper, you described the development of the first neural speech synthesis systems in Canada for the purposes of Indigenous language revitalization. Could you tell us more about text-to-speech synthesis technology (TTS) and what it means for Indigenous languages in Canada to be considered 'low-resource'?

Text-to-speech (TTS) has the potential to be a transformative technology for our languages as they continue their transitions into the digital world. For learners, we have very limited resources for hearing the language spoken. Major world languages like English have billions and billions of hours of recorded speech available whereas Kanyen’kéha would have a few thousand. While TTS models cannot create new material, they can work as a force-multiplier with existing written materials and help make text available through audio.

There is also great potential for TTS to be used with online dictionaries. Because of the way our language works, a ‘complete’ dictionary would have an almost incalculable number of entries with every possible inflection. While various technologies can be used to start generating all these possible forms, it would take many lifetimes for a person to record the audio. TTS can be used to generate the spoken forms, which is a valuable addition for learners who are not always confident in their pronunciation.

The primary challenge with TTS models for Indigenous languages has been the limited availability of transcribed audio. Traditional TTS technologies have required thousands of hours of paired text and speech and this has been a challenge for us since many Indigenous languages in Canada (and around the world) can be considered ‘low-resource’ languages. And in the Indigenous language context, low resource exists on a completely different level, considering that speaker populations can sometimes be counted on one hand.

New approaches to language modelling have brought TTS within reach for Indigenous languages, reducing the minimum requirement to a few hours of transcribed audio in ideal circumstances. While these technologies have great potential, that potential is only realized ethically when the process and product are directed and controlled by the language communities. Meta has recently released a multi-lingual TTS model that can produce speech in thousands of languages. While this is exciting from a technological point of view, from my perspective, their work presents ethical concerns for its complete lack of involvement from the speakers and speech communities whose voices were used in their training. This work from Meta is the most recent example of large technology companies failing to understand our relationship with our languages.

What do you hope the impact of your research and teaching will be?

I hope that in whatever I do, it makes it easier for someone else in the future to do something better. With Indigenous research and Indigenous researchers, I think we’re in a phase where we’re preparing for something great – we’re opening the doors to Indigenous ways of knowing and doing research, we’re building foundations that will support research and researchers for generations to come, we’re Indigenizing the academy just by being Indigenous in the academy.

When I think specifically about language, my only hope is that my contributions will support students in their language learning journey. My work is just a small part of a puzzle that is larger than this country.

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