What is language (to me)? (by Dr Meike Wernicke)

Meike Wernicke, our guest blogger this week, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on French second language teacher education, multilingualism, and critical intercultural studies, and draws on critical perspectives and decolonizing approaches.

This blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

I come to this question as a multilingual white immigrant settler in Canada, as a language teacher educator and researcher working on ancestral, traditional, and unceeded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territory, as someone whose language practices include primarily colonial languages originating in a European context. My knowledge and use of German, English, French, and occasionally very neglected Spanish, have been and continue to be shaped by my personal experiences and relationships yet also by the history, practices, and the different values associated with these constructed languages. In other words, the knowledge and use of language means different things to different people and directly connects to the cultural and social meanings in our societies more generally.

This also means that language can never be everything to all people. I am finding it helpful to remind myself of this as I am grappling with the shifts and tensions of our current sociopolitical climate, especially within our classrooms. Marie Battiste and Sa’ke’j Henderson (ᒪᕒᐃᐁ bᐊᐟᑎᐢᑌ ᐊᐣd ᓴᑫj ᐦᐁᐣdᐁᕒᓱᐣ; 2021) describe the resurgence of Indigenous People’s priorities in Canada as building on the human right of inherent dignity as laid out in the 2007 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. More recently, we find this affirmation in Canada’s 2019 Act of Indigenous languages, which recognizes and protects ancestral languages of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples in response to the discrimination and colonial violence of Indian Residential Schooling in this country, unanimously acknowledged as an act of genocide in the House of Commons only this week.

The 2019 Act has had a direct impact on my work as a French language teacher educator this year. Our teacher education program includes a required Bachelor of Education course that prepares elementary/middle school teacher candidates to teach French-as-a-second-language as part of the mandated grades 5-8 curriculum in British Columbia. The course is unique in that it provides instructional supports for teacher candidates who have little knowledge of or experience with learning and teaching another language, such as French. These past months I have worked with Nicole George, the course instructor, to redesign the course for delivery to a cohort of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous teacher candidates. Until now, the course content and pedagogy have been firmly grounded in Eurocentric and racializing assumptions about language learning and teaching within the monoglossic context of Canada’s federal policy of official English-French bilingualism. The redesigned course seeks a space in which to consider other languages alongside French, in particular local First Nations languages. In this sense, it aims to familiarize future elementary teachers with a multilingual approach to teaching French, modeled by using various languages and with an emphasis on adaptation to local heritage and ancestral language contexts. At this point, after many months of thinking, talking, and teaching, I am still not sure of how this can actually be accomplished, respectfully and ethically.

While struggling through the modeling of Eurocentric strategies for second language teaching during this first rendition of the redesigned course, I have been well aware of how it fails to respond to the particular context and needs of British Columbia’s ancestral language communities and, as directly articulated by many teacher candidates, the urgent need to support and promote their efforts “to reclaim, revitalize, use, maintain, and strengthen” Indigenous languages (Battiste & Henderson, 2021) from a non-Western epistemological and pedgogical perspective. Approaching this course from a Eurocentric position as a French teacher educator raises many questions. In undertaking this endeavour am I not complicit in reproducing settler colonialism, despite consultation with and guidance from Indigenous colleagues? Where do I stand with my understanding of French-as-a-second language as a minority language, which (like English) is a colonial language with federal protection and funding. How do I respond to requests about Indigenous language curriculum-building when these types of structural supports more closely parallel French as a first language considerations? How do I explain my personal and professional experiences in living the political complexity of French in Canada when French-English is uttered as a single phrase by teacher candidates in our discussions about colonialism and residential schools? And rightfully so.

In September, I had the privilege to attend a conference in Portugal which included a plenary talk by Boaventura de Sousa Santos. There were no slides, not even an abstract, just the title: Education as an exercise in learned ignorance. Initially misled by my initial interpretation of “learned ignorance” as implying only a deficit, it soon became clear that this concept was to be understood more broadly – as recognizing the partiality of my knowledge and the need to embrace epistemic diversity, the multiple perspectives that come together in struggle. This resonates with Battiste and Henderson’s discussion of knowledge as “filled with absences and gaps, such that learners are both what they know and what they don’t know” – a view of knowledge “that suggests ignorance is an essential part of learning” (p. vii).

I end this blogpost here, leaving the many questions I have raised unanswered. I think this is an appropriate representation of where I and many of my colleagues find ourselves these days, sitting with discomfort, feeling vulnerable, and ignorant. I try to embrace this as part of the learning I have to do, to figure out what the Indigenous Languages Act means for language education. As a colleague recently put it (thank you, Jeff!): “When we centre Indigenous language reclamation, how does our perspective and practice about multilingualism and language education change?”


Battiste, M., & Henderson, S. (2021). Indigenous and Trans-Systemic Knowledge Systems (ᐃᐣdᐃgᐁᓅᐢ ᐠᓄᐤᐪᐁdgᐁ ᐊᐣd ᐟᕒᐊᐣᐢᐢᐩᐢᑌᒥᐨ ᐠᓄᐤᐪᐁdgᐁ ᐢᐩᐢᑌᒼᐢ). Engaged Scholar Journal: Community-Engaged Research, Teaching, and Learning, 7(1), 1-xvi. https://doi.org/10.15402/esj.v7i1.70768

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