Sunday, October 17, 2010

LIT: Maliseet

N.B. program aims to increase the use of Maliseet language

Published Tuesday October 12th, 2010
Jennifer Pritchett

Andrea Bear Nicholas, a researcher at St. Thomas University, says the new program will help increase the use of the Maliseet language in New Brunswick.

A grant of $243,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, a federal agency that promotes and supports university-based research and training, is making the three-year pilot program possible.

Andrea Bear Nicholas of the native studies program at St. Thomas University will lead the project with Gina Brooks, a band councillor from St. Mary's First Nation and Donna Goodleaf, who is director of the Kanienkehaka Onkwawenna Raotitiohkwa Cultural Centre at Kahnawake reserve in Quebec, where there is already a successful native language immersion program.

"The ultimate goal is to bring back the language," said Bear Nicholas.

Less than 10 per cent of aboriginals who live in New Brunswick's 15 First Nations communities speak their native language. Six of the 15 communities are Maliseet and the remaining nine are Mi'kmaq. Most of the remaining native speakers are 60 years of age or older.

Bear Nicholas said the initiative on St. Mary's First Nation, located in the north end of Fredericton, aims to reverse that trend.

"The language is all there - it's all elders and to revitalize it means that we need to have people of all ages speaking the language," she said.

The early stages of the immersion program will include community planning, encouraging and training speakers of the language to become teachers in the program, interviewing elders who are fluent in the Maliseet language, preparing texts in the language and studying other First Nations communities that have successfully developed language programs.
The full-time immersion classes will begin in the second year of the program.

The third and final stage of the program will focus on evaluating the success of the program in its ability to create new Maliseet speakers and boosting the use of the language in the community.

A major emphasis of the language immersion program, said Bear Nicholas, is to train enough fluent speakers who can become preschool and elementary teachers who can instruct in the Maliseet language on St. Mary's First Nation and at schools in aboriginal communities across the province.

"If we're successful and if we can create at least a handful of people who could become teachers in the schools, it's possible that those children could be fluent 15 years from now," she said.

Bear Nicholas said that offering native language immersion in the schools would provide incentive for First Nations parents to send their children to schools on reserves.

"In areas where immersion has started, parents have brought back their children from the public schools to the community schools because that becomes a real unique offering that the schools on reserve have," she said. "Right now, schools on reserve are taught in English and schools in town are taught in English. There's not a lot of choice for parents. They're still getting the imposition of English in both places."

Earlier this year, the provincial government committed to improve its core language programs for high school, but Nicholas questions the true effectiveness of such programs because she feels that immersion is the only way to create fluent speakers and to preserve the language.

"We've tried the public school route for now really 30 years ... it's a failure of the fact that they only get to hear (the language) for one-tenth of the day maybe," she said. "They're not required to learn to use it in all contexts."

Memorizing certain expressions or words doesn't teach people how to think in the language, she said.

More aggressive steps need to be taken to save native languages from dying out, Bear Nicholas said.

"Really what we need is a law - a law in Canada and in New Brunswick that mandates not only respect for our language, but mandates funding support for the development of programs and the training of teachers in immersion programs," she said.

One of the challenges to revitalizing the language, she said, is that many of those people who are fluent "went through school at a time when they were severely punished for speaking their language" and as a result, they didn't speak the language to their children.

Bear Nicholas also said that the funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada will only cover the cost of planning, preparing and researching the early stages of the immersion program. She said additional funding will have to be accessed in order for it continue after the three-year pilot is complete.

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