Learning to learn about acquiring Indigenous languages (by Dr Mela Sarkar)

Twenty-one McGill Master’s students in Education and I have just finished a wild ride through what’s called a “Special Topics” course from January through mid-April. It was called “Acquiring Indigenous languages as second languages,” and was quite possibly the most exhilarating, tormenting, troubling and ultimately satisfying experience I can recall in 25 or so years of teaching graduate courses in applied linguistics.

But I have to re-think that word “teaching,” because I have no illusions that I taught that course. It taught me.

Imagine: Half a dozen white settler Canadian MA students, and one American, ditto. From a range of backgrounds, from all across the continent, but with a shared understanding of how urgent it has become for people like them to come to grips with the lacunae in their schooling where Indigenous issues of all kinds are concerned. Past Ministries of Education, and some present, have done an unparalleled job of making sure that many successive generations would grow up knowing as little as possible about our collective history of unwitting collusion in the shameful erasure of knowledge about language loss, and other effects of colonization, here. More and more non-Indigenous North Americans know that, now.

Then: Two Asian international students who were well aware of Indigenous issues in their home countries of Japan and Taiwan, and who worked hard at educating the rest of us about them. Two South Americans, one with Portuguese, the other with Spanish, as first languages, both equally well versed in many aspects of Indigenous language and culture south of Turtle Island.

Plus: Ten international graduate students from the People’s Republic of China, where the word “Indigenous” is not considered to have any local relevance, and, for several, was not even a vocabulary item they had ever encountered, over many years of studying English and preparing to undertake graduate work overseas. As one of them, Fangzhe Liu, pointed out, Beijing’s stance on indigeneity in China has been that “All ethnic groups in China, including the majority Han, are indigenous; hence, the term does not apply” (Hathaway, 2010). The idea that coming to Canada meant coming to a place that had had a long history before the arrival of the first Europeans, and that knowing something about that history might be possible/ useful/ maybe even essential, to understand this place, was altogether new for most of them.

We quite literally made the course up as we went along. There was no other way to do it, given the almost inconceivable diversity in the starting points from which we approached the course content. Teaching a Special Topics course is a privilege; faculty members are allowed, for the space of those three credits, to delve into an area of which they have made a special study, whether or not it would normally figure in the graduate curriculum. A dozen years of working with Mi’gmaq language educators at Listuguj First Nation (Sarkar, 2017; Sarkar & Metallic, 2009) had taught me how much I had to learn (everything!). It seemed like a good idea, this term, to open up a space where others might have a similar opportunity to confront the extent of what they almost certainly didn’t yet know.

But it wasn’t possible to go into the course on January 7th with a nice neat list of required and optional readings around preselected topics, or with preconceived notions of what kind of assignments would be appropriate. We had to come at it piecemeal, carefully. I proposed topics and assignments. Students proposed topics and assignments. Guest lecturers did a lot of heavy lifting at the beginning. Confusion around what the word “indigenous” really meant, in this context, surfaced and resurfaced.

What we came up with, mostly, was questions, not answers. If you used to speak Tianjin dialect, but stopped because at university in Beijing people laughed at you, was that like what happens to Indigenous language speakers in Canada? Well, yes and no…How are Indigenous languages different from other endangered local languages, varieties or dialects, like, say, the Celtic languages in Europe? What about residential schools—how were they implicated in language loss?

Above all, what can be done to put past wrongs right? Whether or not one claims Indigenous ancestry, what are some possible options for action that might help strengthen Indigenous languages and increase their chances of survival? Here of course the Calls to Action of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission came up, as well as a wealth of information about policies, practices and pedagogy: preschool language nests, immersion programs for children and adults, Mentor-Apprentice programs.

There aren’t any definitive answers, but we made it through the course. I’m working my way through the pile of final projects this week, in awe at how much we all learned—myself more than anyone. We added to our knowledge about peoples from the Ainu to the Abenaki; about language policy from Tibet to Senegal—not forgetting at Kahnawà:ke, just down the road from us. At an interesting juncture, Bill C-91, “An Act respecting Indigenous languages,” had its first reading in the House of Commons on February 5th, five weeks into the course, and we heard about the pros and cons. One of us went to the Kent Monkman show at McGill’s McCord Museum and presented on it; others then went, and reeled back into the classroom, gasping, to tell us more about powerful it is (there’s still time to see it, as of the time of writing—the last day is May 5th —if you can, go! But prepare to be disturbed).

All in all, there were difficult moments aplenty, and I often had no idea what was going to happen next. But I wouldn’t on any account trade the term’s uncertainties and angst-filled self-questioning (along the lines of, how on earth did I manage to get myself into this?) for a smoother ride, given the richness of what has come out of the experience. What could be more useful, for example, than Yunjie Xue’s bilingual brochure introducing Indigenous language issues in Canada to a Chinese readership, below, as a final project? (and check out her hard-hitting blog posts)

To quote science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson (2002, p. 145): “It is always the teacher who must learn the most…or else nothing real has happened in the exchange.” I didn’t just learn about acquiring Indigenous languages, along with the students. I learned how to learn along with the students, and to not be afraid of not knowing.

If you think you already know, you won’t learn.


Hathaway, M. (2010). The emergence of indigeneity: Public intellectuals and an indigenous space in southwest China. Cultural Anthropology, 25(2), 301-333.

Koelwyn, R. (2018). Unsettling settler shame in schooling: Re-imagining responsible reconciliation in Canada. McGill Journal of Education/Revue des sciences de l’éducation de McGill, 53(2).

Robinson, Kim Stanley. (2002). The years of rice and salt. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Sarkar, Mela. (2017). Ten years of Mi’gmaq language revitalization work: A non-Indigenous applied linguist reflects on building research relationships. Canadian Modern Language Review (special themed issue on Indigenous language teaching, learning, and identities) 73(4), 488-508.

Sarkar, M., & M.A. Metallic. (2009). Indigenizing the structural syllabus: The challenge of revitalizing Mi’gmaq in Listuguj. Canadian Modern Language Review, 66(1), 49-71.

Some open-access links from the course

Bear Nicholas, Andrea. (2005). Education through the medium of the mother tongue: The single most important means for saving Indigenous languages. Rationales and strategies for establishing immersion programs drawn from “A Symposium on Immersion Education for First Nations.” Sponsored by St. Thomas University and the Assembly of First Nations. Fredericton, NB (October 3-6). https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/IPeoples/EMRIP/StudyLanguages/AssemblyFirstNations7.pdf

Brant-Castellano, M.  (2008). A holistic approach to reconciliation: Insights from the research of the Aboriginal healing foundation. In From Truth to Reconciliation: Transforming the Legacy of Residential Schools: Aboriginal Healing Foundation report (pp. 383-400). http://www.ahf.ca/downloads/from-truth-to-reconciliation-transforming-the-legacy-of-residential-schools.pdf

Brophey, A., & Raptis, H. (2016). Preparing to be allies: Narratives of non-Indigenous researchers working in Indigenous contexts. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 62(3). https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/ajer/article/view/56150

Czaykowska-Higgins, E. (2009). Research models, community engagement, and linguistic fieldwork: Reflections on working within Canadian indigenous communities. Language Documentation and Conservation, 3(1), 15-50. https://scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/bitstream/10125/4423/czaykowskahiggins.pdf

Eira, C. (2007). Addressing the ground of language endangerment. In M. David, N. Ostler & C. Dealwis (Eds.), Working together for endangered languages: Research challenges and social impacts. Proceedings of the Foundation for Endangered Languages Conference XI, pp. 82-90. http://www.vaclang.org.au/images/files/admin_file_content34_c1_paper%20final.pdf

Fontaine, Lorena, Leitch, David, Nicholas, Andrea Bear, and de Varennes, Fernand. (2017). What Canada’s New Indigenous Languages Law Needs to Say and Say Urgently. [self-published paper] retrieved from: https://odl.openum.ca/files/sites/68/2017/06/DavidLeitch_notes.pdf

Harrison, Barbara, & Rahui Papa. (2005). The development of an Indigenous knowledge program in a New Zealand Maori-language immersion school. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 36(1), 57-72. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/29195393.pdf

Hill, Jane H. (2002). “Expert Rhetorics” in advocacy for endangered languages: Who is listening, and what do they hear? Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 12, 119–133. http://www.rnld.org/sites/default/files/Hill%202002.pdf

Inglis, S. (2004). 400 years of linguistic contact between the Mi’kmaq and the English and the interchange of two world views. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, XXIV(2), 389–402. http://www3.brandonu.ca/cjns/24.2/cjnsv24no2_pg389-402.pdf

Jenni, B., Anisman, A., McIvor, O., & Jacobs, P. (2017). An exploration of the effects of mentor-apprentice programs on mentors’ and apprentices’ wellbeing. Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health, University of Toronto. https://dspace.library.uvic.ca/bitstream/handle/1828/9246/Jenni_Barbara_IntJournIndigenousHealth_2017.pdf?sequence=1

Johnson, Sʔímlaʔxʷ Michele K. (2016). Ax toowú át wudikeen, my spirit soars: Tlingit direct acquisition and co-learning pilot project. Language Documentation and Conservation, 10, 306-336. https://scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/bitstream/10125/24695/johnson.pdf

Leitch, David. (2006). Canada’s native languages: The rights of First Nations to educate in their language. Constitutional Forum constitutionnel 15(3), 107-120. https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/constitutional_forum/index.php/constitutional_forum/article/view/11063

Makepeace, Anne, with Jessie Little Doe Baird. (2011). We Still Live Here. Documentary film. 56 minutes. Bullfrog Films, Oley, PA. https://makepeace.vhx.tv/products/we-still-live-here-as-nutayunean

Maracle, David Kanatawakhon, & Merle Richards (2002). A native language immersion program for adults: Reflections on year 1. In B. Burnaby, & J. A. Reyhner (Eds.), Indigenous languages across the community (pp. 127-136). Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University: Center for Excellence in Education. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED462231.pdf

Maracle, David Kanatawakhon, & Merle Richards (2002). An intensive native language program for adults: The instructors’ perspective. McGill Journal of Education, 37(3), 371-379. http://mje.mcgill.ca/article/viewFile/8644/6587

McFarlane, Peter, & Nicole Schabus (Eds.). (2017). Whose land is it anyway? A manual for decolonization. Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC. https://fpse.ca/sites/default/files/news_files/Decolonization%20Handbook.pdf

McIvor, O. (2006). Language nest programs in BC: Early childhood immersion programs in two first nations communities. Victoria, BC: First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council. http://www.fpcc.ca/files/PDF/language-nest-programs_in_BC.pdf

Morcom, Lindsay. (2014). Determining the role of language and culture in First Nations schools: A comparison of the First Nations Education Act with the policy of the Assembly of First Nations. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 163. https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/cjeap/article/view/42870

Morcom, L., Disain, P., Elder, D., & Stony Rapids, S. K. (2013). Language immersion and school success: What can I expect for my child? Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute. https://www.kenjgewinteg.ca/uploads/1/4/7/8/1478467/language_immersion_and_school_success_for_parents_-_dr._morcom.pdf

Noori, M. (2009). Wenesh Waa Oshkii-Bmaadizijig Noondamowaad? What Will the Young Children Hear? Indigenous language revitalization: encouragement, guidance & lessons learned, 11-22. http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~jar/ILR/ILR-2.pdf

Obomsawin, Alanis. (2000). Rocks at Whiskey Trench. Ottawa: National Film Board (free viewing) https://www.nfb.ca/film/rocks_at_whiskey_trench/ (1 hour 45 minutes)

Peter, L., Christie, E., Cochran, M., Dunn, D., Elk, L., Fields, E., et al. (2003). Assessing the impact of total immersion on Cherokee language revitalization: A culturally responsive, participatory approach. In J. Reyhner, O. Trujillo, R. L. Carrasco & L. Lockard (Eds.), Nurturing native languages (pp. 7-23). Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University. http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/jar/NNL/NNL_2.pdf

Schnarch, B. (2004). Ownership, control, access, and possession (OCAP) or self-determination applied to research: A critical analysis of contemporary First Nations research and some options for First Nations communities. International Journal of Indigenous Health, 1(1), 80-95. https://ruor.uottawa.ca/bitstream/10393/30539/1/OCAP_Critical_Analysis_2005.pdf

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Language and culture: “How am I going to express myself?” From The survivors speak : a report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (pp. 47-58). http://www.myrobust.com/websites/trcinstitution/File/Reports/Survivors_Speak_English_Web.pdf

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society1(1), 1-40. http://bussigel.com/communityart/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/18630-43263-1-PB.pdf

Another way to start exploring: https://native-land.ca/

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