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Language and Culture (13-17)

Trailblazing Indigenous language program brings Ojibwa into schools

January 17, 2023

A new language platform aims to create the next generation of Anishinaabemowin speakers across the Northwest

NationTalk: NWOnewswatch: A new way of learning Anishinaabemowin is rolling out to schools across the Northwest.

The new web and app-based language learning platform was developed in partnership by the Seven Generations Education Institute, the Rainy River District School Board, and SayITFirst, a company which uses technology and community participation to facilitate Indigenous language learning in Canada.

The program is designed to engage students by giving them a foundation for Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwa language. It uses a campground setting where users complete activities and unlock achievements and tasks.

Jason Jones, a Grade 7 teacher at Fort Frances high school who is involved with the development of the program, said learning Ojibwa allows a connection with his ancestors. ”So now I can see through my ancestors eyes what they saw and then how they put that word together. It’s almost like you’re time travelling. You get to see back into the past. That’s what the language does for us,” he said. “A lot of these words are really old words and I can look back and see where these words come from. They’re not just random words where there are sounds and somebody labels it with something.”

“There’s a lot of visualization that happens and there’s a lot of gifts with this kind of language. There’s words that they use in this app like waawaabiganoojiinh, which is a mouse and I always wondered why these words are so long,” he said. “The word part in there is waabigan, which is clay. The clay is kind of like greyish looking. So anytime you duplicate the first syllable in a word so waawaabigan, you’re putting emphasis on it and the oojiinh ending means insect or animal like.”

“So it’s like saying the insect that is clay like, and that’s what I visualized when I see a mouse. You know the colour of his grey, kinda patchy [fur] and at one point you think like “wow our ancestors saw this and that’s the label they put on there and that’s what they named it,”” he said. “There’s a lot of, I guess you call them, Easter eggs that are inside the language that show us how to live and how to be.”

For the language program, Jones’ voice is what students hear when they click for pronunciation of sounds or words. He said he’s recorded 12,000 sentences for the project and the goal is to eventually replace his audio with voices of elders who are first generation speakers.

Seven Generations CEO Brent Tookenay said they’ve been working with different partners and First Nation communities on language learning over a number of years to create this program. “We really pinpointed where some of the challenges were, in terms of where there was language loss, challenges in revitalizing the language, or even having our opportunities to learn the language. We really did a deep dive into making sure that we were on target with what we wanted to do,” Tookenay said.

“Here we are, a number of years later, talking about learning platforms and creating more speakers than we’re losing. It’s been a really incredible journey and it’s just beginning in my opinion.”

Mike Parkhill, the founder of SayITFirst who coordinates the project, said the content was developed by second language speakers who integrated their own experiences of learning Anishinaabemowin as a second language. “They spent several months just figuring out the right order to learn the language. Everyone has to be motivated as you learn. You have to be posting wins along the way or you feel like you’re just wasting your time,” he said. “So they created the content and the right order in which they learn the language.”

Parkhill said they’ve stayed away from a flash card type, noun-based program, which is often used for language learning, because about 80 per cent of communication in Indigenous language is with verbs. “So the first module, we introduce some of the sounds and then we use that spaced repetition software to accelerate the language just hearing the sounds and learning words,” he said. ”Cognitively [at] about 250 words that you know you start listening for complete words instead of just the sounds.”

Parkhill also said at that point, students start hearing sentence structure and can tell if someone says a sentence with incorrect grammar. “They can’t tell you how it should sound, but they know it doesn’t sound right,” he said. “That happens once you acquire about 250 words.”

Parkhill said they accelerated the vocabulary learning at the start and then repeat the vocabulary quite often throughout the remaining modules. “It’s called scaffold learning. Once you get a good base of one module, it allows you to do better at the next module and so on and so forth,” he said.

He said the program is designed to work best with a teacher guiding students through it. There are currently 120 modules that need about 40 minutes of instruction time and 20 minutes of vocabulary practice for each.

Tookenay said with all these people being invested in a common goal of creating more Ojibwa language speakers, the work becomes almost a passion for everyone that’s involved in it. “Keeping a culture and belief systems, ways of knowing relationship to the land, ceremony, all those things come with learning the language and utilizing the language in your life.” “There’s such a greater purpose to it,” he said. “It’s much more than just a language. It’s a connection to our ancestors, to the land, to spirits or relationships.”

Tookenay and Parkhill said the learning platform is still in development, but they are releasing it early due to positive response and demand.

Jones’ class is one of nearly 70 across school Northern Ontario which started using the program last year. He said he goes through the modules together with his students. “We’re making sure that students are going through it thoroughly. That they’re not just checking it off the to do list, but they’re actually understanding where these words are coming from and how to make sentences,” he said.

One advantage of Anishinaabemowin, he said, is that it starts with a word and then you start adding things onto the word in order to make meaning

“So if you’re saying, “I see you” and you have I at the beginning and then you at the end and then the word see in the middle,” he said. “It starts right from the word first and then it starts adding onto it. Students have the ability or actually the tools to learn how to create sentences. Because, in the end with language learning, what you want to do is be able to have the tools to speak and to say what’s on your mind.”

The learning platform is free for anyone to use and available here.

Eric Shih, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter