Chapter 9: Reclaiming Indigenous languages

9.10 Learning Nishnaabemwin at University

Mary Ann Corbiere

Mary Ann Corbiere grew up in Wiikwemkoong unceded territory on Manitoulin Island. In 2021 she retired from her long career teaching Nishnaabemwin at Université de Sudbury. In this unit Dr. Corbiere talks about what it meant for her students to learn Nishnaabemwin in university.

 

So you started off teaching these students who needed it for their professional qualification and has the, the makeup of your students changed over time?

Sort of, um, it’s always been like, a language course was also needed of course, for a BA in Native Studies.  So most of the students were, um, would have been people, uh, seeking a concentration. We just had a three-year BA at the time, when I first started, a concentration in, in Native Studies, and then once the Native Social Work program was established, then those students were also in it. And then there’s always the usual, you know, whatever other program you’re taking, if you’re sciences, you need to take a humanities like I had to, when I was doing earth and environmental science, and a social science credit. So always, uh, um, at least a few students from who were just needing this for their overall degree requirements.

In terms of, um, their backgrounds, I think on average, I would say it was typically half and half. Like half of the enrollment would be Native students or at least like what I would figure. Well, some of them clearly were Native. They would be from the same community I was from, or they would be from communities I know in the area. And then, um, and then some of them would like, although they might have non-Native last names, they would point out, oh yeah, like my mother’s Native from wherever, some community. Um, and then half, would just be yeah, like non-Native students, some of them like with an interest in an Indigenous language. Yeah. So I think like, um, that was the pattern that, ever since I started teaching.

The class size, um, changed, increased, um, hugely about six or six or five years ago, I can’t remember, because Laurentian added a new require-, modified the BA requirements, that all students needed to take a course, um, designated as Indigenous content.  Um, and there was another one, oh, linguistic awareness because being a bilingual area like, uh, Laurentian is officially bilingual. Um, but it wasn’t necessarily to take French if you were a Anglophone or vice versa.

Uh, at the time, uh, Laurentian also offered courses in Spanish. And, um, um, I think for a time, like when I first started there, there were also courses in German. Um, so the idea was that people should at least learn, learn something about another language, whatever language courses are available. So, and students are very smart so they figured, oh, these two different requirements I can take, then I can meet both with one course.

So your courses got really popular!

So, uh, up until then the average enrollment in total for the on-campus course, uh, would maybe we’d start out with maybe 20, 22 students each year. And then as students found out that, um, Nishnaabemwin, as we, as we began calling it instead of Ojibwe, was not as easy. It was a bit harder than they anticipated! Yeah. Always a bit, dropped down a bit by exam time and maybe 15 or so would show up for the exam.

And then the distance course, same idea, roughly, maybe 15 or 17 students starting out and then maybe 12 or 13 students showing up for the exam. Um, so that was the enrollment annually each session. Yeah. Up until this new requirement, I never thought to check the numbers in advance after the new requirement kicked in, new requirements kicked in, but late July, I said, okay, let me see how many students I have in my class, or whose names I might recognize, like the last names as there were 40 or over 40 students registered already!

I thought, oh, in the on-campus course alone! It’s kind of hard to teach a language with 40 students. So the university fortunately agreed to create a second section on very short notice and we managed to find a teacher to do the second section of the same course that year. Yeah.

Yeah, that changes the classroom quite a bit to have double the students.

Yeah. Yeah. And it changes the dynamics a bit too, because with that kind of requirement, and there’s already like, as I, as maybe others have mentioned or you’ve come across reference to yeah. Like, I mean, not everybody is keen to learn about the Indigenous aspect of Canadian history or something about Indigenous people. They come in at these, whatever negative preconceived notions. Oh, you have now a body of some students who are in it thinking, first of all, okay, “I have to take this thing and this is the only thing I can fit in my timetable”. And second. Yeah. “Well, this is probably an easy course and I’m an A student, so why am I not getting an A” you know, so it complicates things a little bit on that side, but always, there’s always a small number who are really genuinely interested in learning the language and committed to it, despite discovering that it didn’t come as easily to them. So that makes all the difference. As long as you have a few students like that.

So did you have some students who, um, who were from the community who were Native students who wanted to become speakers?

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Usually that is a good number of them in the class. Now, the other, um, I guess hard thing it is for students to learn is that, I mean, just like, I mean, you have an aptitude for certain kinds of subject matter, right? It’s like, I wish I could be an astrophysicist, but I just don’t have a head for physics. Some students, um, and of course with language learning, there’s basically four kinds of skills, right: the pronunciation, um, the comprehension of what’s said, and then the reading comprehension and then the ability to write. So, um, yeah, and it’s rare that a person has, uh, the same level of skills or aptitude for all four skills.

So, um, and so for some, and then, and then there’s this sort of added sort of, um, I guess just part of the situation that I guess in a similar way that somebody with French ancestry might assume, or at least wants to believe that “I’m French, French will come readily to me”, even though they may not have been raised in it, they discover, well, it doesn’t come readily. I just don’t happen to have an aptitude just because I’m French doesn’t mean it comes readily. So now and then I would detect the same kind of thing that there’d be expectations from Native students, that, “I won’t need to have to work as hard on this one because I’m Native, I’m Ojibwe, I’m Nishnaabe.”

And unfortunately they would find that no, it doesn’t guarantee that you have that kind of aptitude and they would really struggle, right. Some would really have a hard time. I remember in my earlier years, and then conversely, and this is where we, when you talk about these power dynamics and this history of colonial colonialism, extraction of knowledge, all this, all these other dynamics that compound things for a person at an individual level, not only do you  feel that, okay, “the language will come easily to me because I’m Ojibwe,” there’s also this thing that, oh, what are, and I said about 50% of the class would be typically non-Native and coincidentally, sometimes you can’t help it. If you have a knack for languages. I mean, you have some good linguistics students in your class, I’m sure, and then some who have a hard time with the linguistics.

I would have non-Native students who happen to be good at the second language. And they would do really well on the written test. And some of the Native students would not do well on the written tests. So I remember one student at one time, I guess, happened to see their non-Native classmate’s mark and the non-Native classmate was always doing really well. And this native student was not doing all that well, usually, really struggling.

Well, yeah. And this is the university’s system of, of assessing knowledge is this power structure. So you’ve got a student who’s, who’s unhappy about their mark on the one hand and also struggling with what that means about their identity.

Exactly, exactly. And that’s, and that’s what I find the hardest is that, um, some, like many of the Native students, um, they want to learn the language, not so much as a thing of linguistics interest. Oh, isn’t this a neat language. Here’s how it works. It’s a way, because they were deprived of the language because their parents either hadn’t learned it, um, for various social factors, like residential schools being part of it, but not exclusively. The other thing was, many of these communities are very small and they didn’t have schools like we did where you could stay in the community up until grade eight. Like when the Spanish school was closed, then they, you have these tuition agreements with school boards provincial school boards. So if you’re in a little town like Shawanaga, a little First Nation, you’re being bussed to Parry Sound to go to a non-Native school, I think from what I understand, basically from day one. You’re never in a context where you’re, where you can hear your, your language during recess time. So there’s, uh, some of the students are coming in with that real need to reconnect with who they are by taking the language. And unfortunately for some of them, it doesn’t come easily. So it’s a real struggle. I feel now.

And then what other opportunities are there for people to practice using the language? So of course, you know, you, you, you go to class and you learn from your teacher and your, your curriculum and your, I dunno, are there textbooks even? But then are there opportunities to practice using it outside of class?

Exactly! It’s a complex issue, like these learners who really want their language back, they, they have so many barriers. So that certainly is one of them. I mean, um, those students from my own community, um, a good number of them would had a good ear already because they’d heard it quite, most of them heard it, like their parents or grandparents are using it regularly, you know? So they’re at least recognizing a good amount of it and they’ve picked up the rhythms of it. But for those from the really small communities, you know, they don’t have, they never had that kind of extensive exposure. So they’re really struggling. So all these compounding factors.

Now, even from, even those coming in from Manitoulin, where you would have this language taught, like up to Grade 12, basically, if they went to the high school on the island, the teachers who teach, there’s not the resource system there. Like when I took French, there was the Bescherelle handbooks, to help with the  the grammar patterns, there was, there’s been nothing like that.

Thanks to the instructional designer, Cheryl Cranley, who, where I learned by doing with her, she basically mentored and coached me, um, like examples, explain what’s going on, give them a chance to practice this little concept, move on to the next level. Examples, explain what’s going on, give them a little learning activity. At the end of a lesson, give a self test. So that’s a pattern. That’s a template that I followed, but forever after.

So it was very structured and very like step-by-step and they could see the pattern. They saw this, the students, I remember one of them remarking, “This is the first time I’ve seen the language, explained, shown in that way. And I feel like I’m able to use it to actually communicate because I, I can see the patterns and I know what I need to change to change my sentence. I never had that, all the way through High School.”

So that’s the unfortunate part of that. The teachers being so overloaded that they are not only because they don’t have resources, they’re forever coming up with stuff to use in their classes, secondly, not having much in the way of linguistics background.

Yeah. It sounds like that might be, um, that it would have been valued to have some, someone with some linguistics training to, you know, to partner with the people who were teaching the language.

Exactly. And one of the courses that we developed in Native Studies was a general course, on, uh, Native, Native language issues. Like not only like, why are they under threat, but also what’s being done. And I remember, whereas in certain communities or there’s, I guess there’s an openness to relying or working with linguists. In my community, there seems to be not that openness of that. There seems to be, and it’s not, I don’t think it’s a real animosity per se, I might have, part of been, um, is I think, as we discussed briefly, part of just coming up from the history of knowledge extraction by scholars, where the scholar gets the name on the book, like Piggott. And what does the, the Native person get? An acknowledgement as being an “informant”. Period. You know? Um, so that kind of, yeah, just, uh, I guess impatience is a mild term for it, annoyance at that kind of treatment, eh, by, um, academia at large.

Um, and then, coupled with that, the sense of that, well, like the notion that Elders have all the knowledge, so therefore anybody wanting to learn the language, uh, Elders are in the best position to help them. It’s not to say that Elders can’t help — certainly if I hadn’t heard the language from my parents, my mother, and her peers and the people of that generation, uh, I would not have acquired what I did, you know, but at the same time, it’s like, yeah, I was fluent in the language, but I didn’t know how to teach it. And as an adult learner, as a teacher of adults, now we are teaching, we’re trying to facilitate learning by acquisition as much as possible. We have immersion programs, but again, funding issues and so on and, um, having a hard time coordinating, how do we do these and so on and so forth. Yeah. There’s only very limited things, uh, that we’re able to do now to foster an acquisition type of learning, we’re teaching, you know?

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