Unlocking the ‘Rosetta Stone’ of a Dying Language

SIX COUNTRIES IN GRAND RIVER, ONTARIO — When Brian Malakul, in his mid-40s, returned to the Mohawk community near Toronto he left when he was five, he found himself unemployed and almost nobody there. did not.

But perhaps the biggest challenge he faced was that he didn’t speak or understand much of Kanyenkeha, a Mohawk language. Mr. Malakul and many other indigenous peoples have lost their language as a result of more than a century of attempts by the Canadian government to eradicate indigenous cultures.

Today, 30 years later, Mr. Maracle is a Mohawk advocate, helping to revive Mohawk and other Indigenous languages ​​in Canada and beyond through changes in educational methods.

“I never studied linguistics. I wasn’t trained to be a teacher. My parents weren’t speakers.”, Southwest of Toronto. However, he is now being featured as a speaker at linguistics conferences.

Innovative approaches like Malakul’s are essential to overcoming indigenous language and cultural oppression in Canada, experts say.

From the 19th century to the 1990s, thousands of Indigenous students were sometimes forcibly removed from their homes and placed in Canada’s boarding school system. There, they were forbidden to speak their language or practice a tradition that a national commission later called “cultural genocide.”

Although this system could not completely eradicate indigenous languages, its effects were devastating nonetheless. 60 Indigenous Languages ​​Found in Canada.

Today, revitalizing Indigenous languages ​​is part of Canada’s effort to seek reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, a top priority of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government. Four years ago, the government Indigenous Language Lawmust formally recognize the importance of these languages ​​and allocate more than $700 million Canadian dollars to date to teach them.

But when Mr. Malakul arrived at Six Nations, there was none of that. The available programs were found to be inappropriate for adult students.

said Ivona Kucerova, Director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Experimental and Applied Linguistics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “But what is commonly seen is that local indigenous language teaching methodologies are designed to teach Western languages.”

According to Malakul, the problem with his first failed lesson was that the instructors, usually Mohawk elders who weren’t trained as language teachers, were throwing “whole words.”

“They expected you to drop the word and say out loud that you’d somehow figure it out.”They didn’t understand how language was actually structured. I did.”

A small grant allowed Mr. Malakul and three others from the Six Nations to try to pinpoint what the structure was.

Malakul found the answer about 25 years ago in the office of David Kanatawakon Malakul (not directly related), a lecturer at Western University in London, Ontario.

“There were little scraps of paper all over this big table,” Malakur recalled. The lecturer spoke the words Mr. Malakul wanted to hear.

There were about 60 slips of paper on his office table, and they were “the Rosetta Stone of everything it takes to be a competent novice speaker,” Malakur said.

Kanyen’keha is a polysynthetic language, with one word acting as a whole sentence. These words are made up of morphemes, small elements that change meaning depending on how they are combined.

The pieces of paper contained morphemes, the building blocks of entire languages.

“This was big,” Malakul said.

Understanding that these elements are the keys to unlocking language was the breakthrough Malakur needed to become fluent. But other students at the school he helped in 1999 were still struggling. After trial and error, Mr. Malakul realized that he needed to build a curriculum and educational program on morphemes, including a color-coding system for grouping morphemes.

One of the key discoveries, he said, was understanding that learning Kanyen’keha required “seeing the world through Mohawk eyes.”

Compared to other languages, Kanyen’keha relies heavily on verbs. Objects are usually described by their function. For example, the word “computer” is loosely translated as “it makes things happen”.

According to Malakul, that speaker should analyze the world in terms of actions rather than objects.

“We don’t teach them how to say ‘pencil’, ‘chair’ and ‘shoes’ for six months,” Malakur said. “Because this language is a verb-based language, the names of things are grammatically less important.”

Professor Kuselova, director of Hamilton’s Center for Linguistics, sees Mr. Malakul as a linguist, despite having no formal training. She said tests showed his students had college-level fluidity in two years.

“I have never seen anyone take an adult learner to this level of language and two years later be able to speak at this level,” she said, noting that Mohawk translates to Arabic at a level of difficulty for English-speaking students. I added that it is ranked. “It’s really amazing.”

“I was literally fascinated by the scope of his work,” said Professor Kuselova. “He’s come up with an unlikely but linguistically clever way of communicating this radically different language to adults.”

Born in Detroit, Mr. Malakul spent most of his first five years in the Six Nations, but spent his childhood in Buffalo and Rochester, New York, and Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, where he was a carpenter father. He moved for work.

After graduating from Dartmouth College, he studied journalism and worked as a reporter for The Globe and Mail. He also hosted the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Indigenous Radio Program before returning to Six He Nations.

Malakul, 76, recently retired from the language school he founded. Onkwawenna Kenchowwaor Our Language Society — but he remains active in its many programs.

The school has offices in the Indigenous Community Services building in the village of Osweken, Ontario, a large First Nations administrative center. Only a dozen students are accepted each year. The first grant from the federal government will arrive in 2021. Prior to that, it was primarily funded by the community.

There are no specific numbers of people who currently speak Kanienkeha in the region, but the local branches of Canada’s largest financial institution, the Royal Bank of Canada, now have Kanienkeha signs and employees who speak the language. Language signs around the community warn drivers not to text or drive.

Pupils at this school include Mark Miller, the current Minister of Indigenous Affairs. After studying part-time, he became the first member of parliament to speak in an indigenous language in the Canadian Parliament since federalism in 1867.

The most important difference Marakur sees is that Kanenkeha is no longer only spoken by older people, but is used more often by young people, in the home, immediate family, and in everyday situations. That’s it.

“I think people are finally realizing that public schools and technology cannot save our language,” he said, adding: speaker.

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