Montreal: Keeping Mohawk alive

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Aug 1 14:30:21 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.

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 teachings. 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 countries.

"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 employees. "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."

"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 says. 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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