Keep It Alive (language)

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Jul 31 19:55:13 UTC 2006

Keeping a native language alive
Computer software seen as key to increasing the number of Mohawk  
speakers Immersion programs featured at Kahnawake Reserve, writes  
Robert J. Galbraith

Jul. 29, 2006. 11:37 AM

MONTREAL—The Kahnawake Reserve near here is home to 8,000 Mohawks,  
but only about 1,000 of them can speak their native language.
To correct that, the community recently launched a computer software  
program it hopes will help revive the Mohawk language and encourage  
residents to get more in touch with their ancient culture and its  

This is the first program to be initiated under the Rosetta Stone  
Endangered Languages Program, with similar software now being  
developed for the Seminole of the southern United States and the  
Inuit of the far north. Rosetta Stone software is currently being  
used to teach millions of users 30 major languages in more than 150  

"Language defines nationhood. It shapes and forms your whole world of  
who you are. It's part of everything we are as a people," says Donna
Goodleaf, a PhD in education and the executive director of  
Kahnawake's Cultural Centre.

"Part of our agenda as a cultural centre is to develop and implement  
language programs for the people of the community," she says.
The computer program will supplement a variety of other language  
training elements that are already in place in Kahnawake, including  
adult language enrichment classes, language immersion "nests" for  
preschool-age children and a cable access program for family members  
of all ages. They are all aimed at expanding the number of fluent  
Mohawk speakers.

The software immerses the user into the language he or she is trying  
to learn, through its dynamic immersion method. Words and phrases  
spoken by people from the community are matched with pictures of  
familiar places and faces. There are several options to choose from,  
and through the process of elimination, the user will pick the  
appropriate picture to match the words. Where other language software  
packages teach by translation, immersion ensures that language  
meaning is not lost, as it never equates indigenous words with  
English words.
Word of the program has sparked great interest in native communities  
across North America.

"We have received calls from the Six Nations, the Sak and Fox Nations  
of Oklahoma, the Navaho of Arizona, the Squamish of British Columbia,  
the Seminoles of Florida, the Inuit and the Ojibwa in Ontario,"  
Goodleaf says. "They all want to know how it is working out."

The Kahnawake band council, under the leadership of Grand Chief  
Michael Delisle, wholly endorses the learning program. Not only is  
the program being used in schools and private homes, but by Sept. 1,  
the council will require Kahnawake's 900 public servants to enrol in  
Mohawk language lessons. This includes social workers, teachers,  
medical workers, firefighters, peacekeepers and infrastructure  

"There's a fine line on our public employees in learning Mohawk.  
We're not going to throw people out," Delisle says. "We're not trying  
to force businesses to conform immediately. We're not saying your job  
is being threatened if you don't learn our language, but people with  
language skills will definitely be an asset when it comes to hiring.  
There is no real timeline (for language enforcement) but this is  
transitional. If we don't see the necessary results, we will have to  
be stricter."

`Language defines nationhood. It shapes and forms your whole world of  
who you are'
Donna Goodleaf, Kahnawake Reserve

"I don't foresee any problems," Delisle says. "For doctors and nurses  
it may be tough because of their workload, but we will eventually  
have to serve our community in their own language. We are hoping the  
civil servants bring the initiative home."

According to the grand chief, "in 1998 the elders told us that  
language is where our culture is based, and when we die off, our  
language will die with us. So, that year they put forward a  
declaration calling for its preservation," Delisle says. "With this  
in mind, in 1999 the band council passed a law making Mohawk the  
reserve's official language.

"We didn't want to do what Bill 101 (the Quebec language law) did and  
scare people off. We said, `let's look at a transition program and  
develop a plan.'"

Delisle's goal is to have 30 per cent of Kahnawake's public employees  
fluent in Mohawk in five years, 60 per cent in 10 years and 80 per  
cent in 15 years.

"Our younger people are getting Mohawk cultural and language  
education at the two immersion schools and at the Survival School,  
located in the village. All subjects are taught in Mohawk there, but  
it is the middle generation, those of the 30 to 60 years group we are  
most hopeful of attracting. A lot of these people went through the  
residential school experience. They were not allowed to speak their  
native Mohawk tongue while incarcerated in these institutions and  
many lost that ability. They will get the most impact from it."
Delisle says Mohawk language and culture began its modern decline in  
the 1950s, largely due to the overwhelming English media and pop  
culture, then by the French language and political changes.

"Theirs (the English culture) is a dominant language and culture in  
Canada, especially with MTV, radio and television. To some of our  
youth, it's not sexy to know Mohawk; it's sexy to know hip-hop," he  

The idea for the language revitalization drive came three years ago,  
when then-Kahnawake grand chief Joe Norton sent letters to 40  
businesses in the online gaming industry, asking for cash  
contributions to be aimed at ways to regenerate interest in learning  
the language.
There was only one response. That came from John Moshal, a Jew who  
lives in Durban, South Africa. Moshal is the president of Microgaming  
Inc., the world's largest online gaming software developer.

Moshal saw similarities between the situation with the Mohawk  
language and Hebrew's revival, so he contributed $250,000 over a five- 
year period to find a way to preserve the language.

The Mohawk used the money to hire Fairfield Technologies of Virginia  
to develop the Rosetta Stone software program for the Mohawk dialect.  
Two months ago, the first 1,000 CD-ROMs were delivered to the  
reserve. They feature four local Mohawk speakers, and numerous  
Kahnawake landmarks and familiar faces, making it a truly home  
version for the people of Kahnawake.

The struggle to preserve a language is not solely a Mohawk problem.  
Of the world's 6,000 spoken languages, 50 per cent are endangered,  
and an average of one language disappears every two weeks, according  
to a UNESCO study of the present state of the world's languages.
"The struggle with preserving language is not inherent to Kahnawake  
or other nations exclusively," Delisle says. "My hope is that there  
will be in the near coming years, a national affiliation of Mohawk  
speakers across the nation. There is a lot at stake, but we are not  
going to disappear."
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