“The more you know, the more you need to know”: Learning Gaelic and Ojibwe online during the pandemic (by Paul Meighan-Chiblow)

Aaniin, Boozhoo. Paul ndizhnikaaz. Alba indoonjibaa. Tkaronto ndidaa. N’gichinendam. Nimiigwechiwendam.

Hello, my name is Paul. I come from Alba (Scotland) and live in Toronto. I am happy. I am grateful.

‘S e Gàidheal a th’annam. Tha mi à Glaschu. Tha mi ag ionnsachadh Anishinaabemowin agus Gàidhlig. ‘S math ur coinneachadh.

I’m a Scottish Gael from Glasgow. I’m learning Anishinaabemowin and Gaidhlig. It’s nice to meet you.

My Anishinaabe husband and I talk frequently about the importance of reclaiming and speaking our languages, languages which have been oppressed and pushed to the verge of extinction by centuries of colonial governments and educational policy. We want to speak our languages, for example, in our home and with our future children. This particular story of my online language learning journey of Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) and Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) starts in late 2019. My husband and I were living in Montréal where I was finishing the first semester of my doctorate. Gàidhlig had just been released on Duolingo, a commercial language learning app, to lots of fanfare and buzz. Hundreds of thousands of people had signed up for it, apparently more so than the actual number of Gàidhlig speakers (~57,000)! I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, so I downloaded it. I had bought language learning books (online ones and paper ones) and been gifted books. But I hadn’t really fully delved into them. Maybe learning from an app, on my cellphone on our sofa, would help me start the process and be “easier”?

I used Duolingo regularly for a couple of weeks, went through drills, familiarized myself with frequent vocabulary (e.g., clothes) and phrases (e.g., greetings), and even got points which placed me on an international leaderboard. I think I would say it was fun-ish for a bit, then the novelty wore off. I enjoyed hearing the Gàidhlig, but I remember thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice to know which dialect this is? What does this word really mean? I also wanted to learn my home community of Uibhist a Deas (South Uist) dialect, to know if I was saying things right, and if I would be understood when I went back and tried to speak a little Gàidhlig! There was also something mechanical about Duolingo, a little monotonous, which quickly became predictable. For example, tapping words you hear to form or translate sentences that I wouldn’t really use, such as in the image below.

Gàidhlig Duolingo App Example

While I’m open to many possibilities, I don’t see myself talking about not buying a bus anytime soon! I didn’t feel I was learning about the context of the language or truly “getting it”. I also think language is anything but predictable! And while I don’t want to undermine the potential of Duolingo as a technological tool or for raising the visibility of Gàidhlig, I wanted to know more. I also noticed there were additional “new” languages added at the same time as Gàidhlig, such as Hawaiian or Navajo. I wondered why Anishinaabemowin, my husband’s Indigenous language, was not available, too. I also wondered who decides which languages are on the platform and to what extent the teaching content/format or framework is decided or controlled by Duolingo, a corporation headquartered in Pittsburgh and far from the Gàidhlig speaking communities in Scotland. I guess it’s not really surprising that I lost interest in the platform after a few weeks.

My online language learning journey went back to my already familiar practice of using online spoken dictionaries, referring to my (e)books, viewing social media posts and snippets of songs and short phrases in both Anishinaabemowin and Gàidhlig now and again. Then, the pandemic happened. I continued learning little bits of the languages on-and-off here and there until, this fall, my husband shared a post with me he saw on Instagram for an “Anishinaabemowin for Absolute Beginners”courseonline. The course was organized by Good Learning Anywhere and taught by a “first-speaker of Nishnaabemwin” (About Barbara Nolan, 2020, para. 1), from Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve in Manitoulin Island, who now lives in my husband’s home community. I thought this was more than just circumstance and would be a perfect opportunity to start learning more about the language!

Anishinaabe Language for Absolute Beginners Flyer

So, I started the classes, listening to the way the long words were pronounced, tuning my ear, understanding the rhythm a little more. The course was structured in a way that was somewhat familiar to me, with first an emphasis on the sounds of the letters and vowels, before moving on to greetings and saying how we feel, for example. One thing that did stand out to me from the very start and that I really enjoyed was how the alphabet was taught through a song to the beat of the drum. This method really helped me get to grips with the short vowels and the long vowels which I’d really struggled to understand and grasp from the paper books and online pronunciation sites I’d consulted before.

The Trail of Nenaboozhoo and other Creation Stories

We were also told the story of one way to say “Hello” in Anishinaabemowin: Boozhoo. Our teacher shared that isn’t a derivative of the French greeting “Bonjour”, which some may claim or assume. She instead emphasized that Boozhoo is said to acknowledge Nenaboozhoo (you can read more, for example, in The Trail of Nenaboozhoo: and Other Creation Stories; Murdoch, 2019) and means, loosely speaking, “I see you, your spirit” when you meet someone (Nolan, personal communication, 2020). I loved this culturally responsive explanation and translation. I’d love to be able to open or click on a dictionary, for example, and know more about the stories connected to particular words or phrases.

We were also told the importance of respecting community and dialect specific variations of Anishinaabemowin, because there are many (Nolan, personal communication, 2020). I appreciated being reminded of the vibrancy of the language while we were learning about different spellings of verbs and nouns. I hadn’t come across that in other language courses (such as Spanish) I’d taken in the past, which isn’t really surprising because the mainstream, colonial way of teaching dominant western languages diminishes and deprivileges dialects or variations of the “standard” language (e.g., “native speakerism” in English).

I was learning so much more than just the “basics” for “absolute beginners”. I was getting to know more about the sociocultural and spiritual roots of the language. I will remember Boozhoo, for instance, because I learned it’s much more than just “Hello”, something I wouldn’t get from an app. I was also learning about the context of the language through stories and song, which really resonates with me and inspires me to keep learning more. The balance of technology being used here in a culturally responsive way, thanks to our teacher-speaker from an Anishinaabeg community, was very impactful and helped me start out on this language learning journey.

My language learning journey continued shortly after the Anishinaabemowin for Absolute Beginners course; this time, though, for Gàidhlig. I saw a post on Twitter for a four-week online course of different levels run by Ceòlas, a Gaelic culture and language organization in South Uist. I remember thinking, back when I was using Gàidhlig Duolingo, how cool it would be to learn more about the language, the accent, the culture, from my Gaelic community in Uibhist a Deas, where my mother is from. But then I thought of the practical realities of doing that: thousands of dollars and substantial amounts of time to fly home from Toronto, find and pay for accommodations, stay there at least a month, take time off work, do one (not to mention two!) immersion course(s), and fly back again. In other words, the Ceòlas online course offering came at a “perfect” time! I say “perfect” because the opportunity came about in response to the pandemic, and not because of happier circumstances. I signed up straight away.

The Gàidhlig beginner’s course, similar in some respects to the Anishinaabemowin beginner classes, started out with a familiar language learning structure: learning how to say hello, conjugating the past, present, and future tenses, talking about the weather and what we are doing. But, while I was grappling to come to terms with the long words and phrases (Gàidhlig has a lot of consonants and tricky sounds for me!), we were also shown pictures of the landscapes of Uibhist a Deas to describe the weather. I really enjoyed this because not only was I learning to say, “Tha i dorcha agus fuar” (It’s dark and cold), for example, I was also reminded of familiar landscapes specific to the island. I felt like I was there or present in a way I didn’t feel before when I tried learning by myself.

Throughout our lessons, in addition to learning more about the language, we were also told lots of wee stories about Uibhist a Deas. One morning at the start of class, for example, our teacher mentioned her cattle had just been sold at a good price. She told us about how her cattle would now go off to graze on the machair (a fertile low-lying land next to the coast, one of the rarest natural habitats in Europe; Love, 2003), about the centuries-old community-run runrig system (where parts of the land are left fallow and grazed and others cultivated and crops sown), and how the cattle would eventually calve and the cycle would start all over again (MacInnes, personal communication, 2020). “The more you know, the more you need to know!” she said at the end of her story. I really loved hearing this little prelude to the class for several reasons. Her story made me think about last summer when we were walking on the machair in Uibhist a Deas, but I also thought her comment was so timely. It made me think of where I’m at in my lifelong learning journey in general, how I discovered this course during my Anishinaabemowin class and how I started with Gàidhlig literally a week after that course ended, and, now that I’ve finished one beginner’s course and almost finished another, how much this phrase rings true for me. I literally do feel the need to know more! My (language) learning journey in both Gàidhlig and Anishinaabemowin has just begun.

Paul on the machair in Uibhist a Deas, August 2019

With that said, I’d like to acknowledge that I wouldn’t even have been able to start on this language learning journey without technology (laptop/internet), social media, my teachers, and the availability of their online courses largely due to the pandemic. It’s strange and perhaps contradictory, because, in times of isolation and the pandemic, I’ve been able to pick up my language learning in a more meaningful way where I’ve met people online who make me feel closer to the languages and to being able to use to language more in the future at home. Learning languages through a commercial online outlet, such as Duolingo, is not as desirable for me. I’m missing out on traditions, the stories behind the words that are specific to, as our Gàidhlig teacher said, where the language belongs and “all the feelings of the land” (MacInnes, personal communication, 2020). In contrast, these online courses in Anishinaabemowin and Gàidhlig have been and are delivered by language speakers and teachers who are so knowledgeable about the connections between language and place, about their home communities, about the relationships between the language and transmitting stories, cultural insights, and, something shared by both courses, great doses of much needed humour and laughter, especially in these pandemic times.

There are, of course, arguments against unchecked or capitalistic technology use, especially when learning Indigenous languages that have been subjected to centuries of linguicide and genocide by colonial governments (e.g., Carpenter et al., 2017). For example, who is the person controlling or implementing the technology, and does their belief system perpetuate harmful colonial or capitalistic ideologies? Does the technology feed back to the community and its speakers? Do “new” apps like Duolingo actually support existing speaker communities? For these reasons, it is fundamental that the technology is created and/or implemented by Indigenous peoples, specific to their own communities, own stories, and through their own way of seeing and interacting with the world (Winter & Boudreau, 2018).

Learning online doesn’t have to be robotic or decontextualized, as my teachers have exemplified.  As our Anishinaabemowin teacher said, we can “put life into the language, and make it come alive” (Nolan, personal communication, 2020). I know I’ve barely tipped my toes into the water when it comes to everything that these languages possess, and that these online courses will never be as good as doing it in person. That said, when you live hundreds if not thousands of miles away from the communities, technology as an additional tool to amplify local community-led or -based language initiatives could be beneficial. For me, technology, social media, and the pandemic initiating more classes online has helped me to relate to and connect with teacher-speakers from the language communities and fellow learners with similar interests.

In short, I really hope that these courses continue to be delivered online in some form after the pandemic for those who cannot make it to in-person community language classes. For example, even if I wanted to, I simply could not have afforded the time or money to travel or fly to take part in person. It would also have been impossible for me to keep on learning or to be doing the next block of Gàidhlig I’m currently taking if the classes weren’t online. I also think these examples of practical, financial and logistical obstacles are only tip of the iceberg when it comes to the psychological and emotional aspects of learning endangered heritage and Indigenous languages that have been oppressed and silenced by centuries of colonial education policy. Not so long ago, when I was in school, I couldn’t even take Gàidhlig as a subject in my hometown of Glaschu (Glasgow, or from the Gàidhlig, “Dear Green Place”). Now, here I am, learning it little by little at 4 am every Tuesday morning on my laptop. Here’s to the rest of my language learning journey in Anishinaabemowin and Gàidhlig and to taking one step closer to being able to speak these languages in our home, with our children, and with our communities.

Last, but not least, I’d like to give a HUGE thank you to my online teachers, Barbara Nolan and Mairi MacInnes, for everything they have shared and continue to share. Thank you also to Good Learning Anywhere and Ceòlas for organizing these online courses.

Gichi miigwetch (many thanks) and ceud mile taing (a hundred thousand thanks)!


About Barbara Nolan. (2020). BarbaraNolan.com. Retrieved from https://barbaranolan.com/about-barbara-nolan/ on Nov 25, 2020.

Carpenter, J., Guerin, A., Kaczmarek, M., Lawson, G., Lawson, K., Nathan, L. P., & Turin, M., (2017, May). Digital access for language and culture in First Nations communities. Retrieved October 7 2019 from https://heiltsuk.arts.ubc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Digital_Language_Access_report_May2017.pdf

Love, J. (2003). Machair: Scotland’s living landscapes. Scottish Natural Heritage. Retrieved Nov 22, 2020 from https://www.nature.scot/sites/default/files/2017-08/Publication%201998%20-%20Scotland%27s%20Living%20Landscapes%20-%20Machair.pdf

Murdoch, I. (2019). The trail of Nenaboozho: and other creation stories. Kegedonce Press.

Winter, J., & Boudreau, J. (2018). Supporting self-determined Indigenous innovations: Rethinking the digital divide in Canada. Technology Innovation Management Review, 8(2), 38-49.

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