Project lends hand to saving a voice

Rob Rombouts // Special to Western News

Through the Language Revitalization in Practice course, Anthropology student Ashna Ali is working to digitize eight Oneida-language children’s books originally written in the 1970s. She recorded Elders reading the books, and is converting the books to an e-book format with interactive elements.

For Tania Granadillo, the silencing of even one language is like losing a part of humanity’s heritage. Hence why this summer, the Western Anthropology professor and students in her Language Revitalization in Practice course are looking to join the fight to save one.

Partnering with the Oneida Language and Cultural Centre, Western students are supporting the centre’s work to encourage use of the Oneida language. Working with community members from the Oneida Nation of the Thames, students are making Oneida-language material more accessible for younger learners and future generations, mainly through digitizing existing materials.

Half of the 6,000-7,000 languages spoken on the planet may disappear by the end of the 21st century if nothing is done. While the situation is different for each endangered language, many languages become threatened due to the establishment of a dominant language, used by institutions like government and education.

“If they don’t have a grasp on their dominant language, people see it as limiting the possibility of success,” Granadillo said. “This goes hand in hand with the mistaken idea that it is difficult for kids to speak or learn more than one language. So, their parents are more likely to choose the dominant language. In Canada, this was exacerbated by the residential school system and the policies that hindered people from using their language, or even punished them.”

Granadillo said it is easier to learn two languages from birth than to learn a second language later in life, especially if the languages are as different as English and Oneida or other Aboriginal languages.

Olive Elm, an Oneida language consultant and an elder of the Oneida Nation, learned Oneida as her first language. She did not even hear English spoken until she went to school at age 7. While at school, she was punished for speaking Oneida. This changed her views of her language.

“I felt that if I was having that much trouble speaking (my language), then I wouldn’t teach my children – when I had them – how to speak,” Elm said. “I didn’t think it was that important until I heard we were losing it.”

Elm works with government groups to translate documents into Oneida and with students in the course to help translate materials.

When Elm began working as a consultant, there were 263 fluent Oneida speakers in the community. Now, 28 years later, there are only 60.

“I realized that, as a fluent speaker, if I didn’t do anything to help, we would lose it,” she said.

While loss of languages has always been recognized within the communities, linguists started to call attention to the situation in the 1990s. “The range of world languages helps us understand what the human brain is capable of in terms of language,” Granadillo said. “Languages carry cultural and environmental knowledge.”

The languages are also important to the people who speak them. There is a correlation between knowledge of your indigenous language and the health and well-being of your community. Knowing your language “provides a sense of identity and community grounding in culture. It helps you function better in society,” Granadillo said.

Many Canadians may have a personal connection to another heritage language, perhaps spoken by parents or grandparents, but not taught to them as a child, she continued. “A big difference with Aboriginal languages is that there are no other groups of speakers.”

For the students in the course, working with the Oneida speakers has helped provide a personal link to a global phenomenon.

Ashna Ali is in her final year of the Anthropology program. Through her course, she worked to digitize eight Oneida-language children’s books originally written in the 1970s. She recorded elders reading the books, and is converting the books to an e-book format with interactive elements.

Ali felt the course was an “eye-opening experience” and helped her develop a better understanding of Indigenous communities. It also gave her a better appreciation for applying what she learned in class; “For service work, we often take on what we think is best; now we are able to work directly with the community and deliver what they want.”

Building on the partnership with the Oneida Nation, Granadillo and the students are preparing how-to manuals for anyone who would like to undertake similar tasks for other language resources.

Granadillo hopes to continue the work and offer the course again in summer of 2018.