Retirees' Association

Retirees Association of Queen's

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RAQ Members Making a Difference: Keeping a Language Alive


We regularly read in the news about the loss of ecological diversity. Rich and varied ecosystems are being replaced by 'monocultures', devoted to a single species, usually one seen as more economically valuable. It is often only later that we measure the full impact of this change in terms of lost species.

Work is being done to reverse the trend by protecting ecologically fragile areas, by replanting native species, and by the establishment of a clearer and better balance between the natural world and our increasingly technological one. There is hope that we can yet arrive at an acceptable state of affairs.

There is another loss of ecological diversity though that we rarely hear about: the loss of languages. As with environmental loss, language loss is complex and includes loss of speakers and the loss of contexts where the language is used. The loss of a language has many hidden effects. Along with music and art, language is one of the primary vehicles for maintaining and sharing a culture. In English, think of all the background cultural information carried by apparently simple words like "holidays", "mother-in-law", or "dessert". It is easy to see how the loss of a language often goes hand in hand with the loss of a culture.

Of the 7000 or so known living languages in the world today, it is estimated that around 20% are in trouble. These are languages where the parents may speak a heritage language but they are not necessarily transmitting it to their children. There are also 13% that are in more serious trouble as the adults of childrearing age no longer speak the language and are not capable of transmitting it directly to their children. Without sustained intergenerational transmission, these languages face a demographic inevitability as speakers grow older and the generations pass.

Most of the indigenous languages in Canada are in serious trouble. There are fewer and fewer first-language speakers and most children are not learning their languages. One of these languages is Kanyen'kéha (pronounced 'gan-yan- geh-ha') or Mohawk. Kanyen'kéha is one of the Iroquoian languages originally spoken in the area around the Great Lakes. There were several migrations in the 17th and 18th centuries as European religious and political conflicts manifested themselves in North America. Later, with the American Revolution, the ancestors of the local Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte were dislocated and were granted land via Treaty 3½, also known as the Simcoe Deed of 1793.

Storytime at Kawenna'on:we Immersion Program

Storytime at Kawenna'on:we Immersion Program

Today, there are seven Kanyen'kehá:ka communities spread across Ontario, Quebec and New York State: Six Nations, Tyendinaga and Wáhta, all in Ontario, Akwesasne in Ontario, Québec and New York State, Kahnawà:ke and Kanesatà:ke in Québec, and Ganienke which was established in New York State during the 1970’s.   Mohawk remained the dominant language of these communities into the 20th century, at which point for a variety of reasons, including residential schools and forced adoptions, it began serious decline in every instance. It is difficult to determine precisely the number of remaining speakers, but current estimates put the number between 1000 and 1500.

Community leaders recognized the problem as it was developing and early language efforts began at Six Nations almost 50 years ago. The community identified that the language was in decline and night classes started along with efforts to have Mohawk included in school curricula. Communities across the Mohawk Nation followed a similar pattern, beginning with individual classes and then adding other more effective methods of creating speakers.

Primary Immersion schools were started in many communities in the 1970's and 1980's. These were generally parent-led initiatives with community support that focused on cultural education in the language, but weren’t always long lasting or very effective in transmitting the language.  In the 1990's, communities shifted their focus to creating adult speakers through full-time immersion programs. These programs have met with success and continue to develop as they create speakers.  There have been four full-time adult immersion programs offered over the past two decades: Onkwawén:na Kentyóhkwa - Six Nations (1999);  Shatiwennakará:tats - Tyendinaga (2004-2016); Ratiwennahní:rats - Kahnawà:ke (2002); and the Akwesahsne Cultural Restoration Program (2014).

As part of the efforts at Tyendinaga, Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na Language and Cultural Centre has partnered with Queen's to offer four university-level courses that will complete the Certificate in Mohawk Language and Culture. These will be offered in the community starting in the fall of 2018, concurrent with two courses already taught on the Queen's campus.


 Students having fun with the feather dance

One of the challenges in teaching Kanyen'kéha stems from its structure. Unlike English, which has mostly simple words (think "cat", "run", "often") joined together in sometimes complex sentences, Kanyen'kéha is a ‘polysynthetic' language, which means that it makes sometimes very complex  words by combining many smaller parts which are themselves not words. It is often difficult for speakers of English to manipulate the many  parts and pieces that must go together to make a  complete word.  Consider the relatively simple Mohawk word "yenskhekhonnyonnì:re’ .” Its English meaning is somewhat more complex: “I am going to go there to cook things for her again.” With this complexity, it is also difficult to produce language teaching software, especially for verbs, since the number of possible combinations is vast and can't reasonably be assembled by hand. As a result, most current software is relatively primitive.

This is where another facet of a university comes into play. A university is (or should be) a place where people who might never have worked together have the possibility of collaborating to develop something that individually they might not have been capable of producing. This particular story begins in the mid-1980's, when a computer scientist (Michael Levison) in the now School of Computing, and a linguist (Greg Lessard) in French Studies, began to develop software (ivi/Vinci, later VinciLingua) capable of generating language from a grammar. Output can be written text, spoken utterances, or images and may be quite complex. The software has been used in a variety of venues, including the teaching of French in Continuing and Distance Studies at Queen's.  The story continues when in 2017, as part of its initiative to produce new courses, the Tyendinaga community engaged a Mohawk teacher from Queen's (Nathan Brinklow) and Greg Lessard (now a Queen’s retiree) to produce language-teaching materials in Mohawk using VinciLingua. These materials will support teachers by providing practice and supplementary instruction that a classroom teacher simply doesn't have time to provide in the limited hours available.   

 Nathan baking banana bread with students in Kanyen'keha      

This work in common has been going on for almost a year and is beginning to bear fruit. We are looking forward to seeing it in action. 

All this also illustrates a point important to RAQ.  As Queen’s retirees, we have the luxury of a pension, the skills developed over our working life, and the time to make a contribution.  All that's needed is the opportunity and the will.

Nathan Brinklow (Thanyehténhas), Queen’s, and Greg Lessard , RAQ council member


Nathan Brinklow (Thanyehténhas) is an adjunct instructor in Mohawk Language and Culture in Languages Literatures and Cultures at Queen’s.  Greg Lessard is an emeritus professor at Queen’s and RAQ Council member.  Greg continues to work in the School of Computing with Michael Levison on natural language generation and language teaching.