March 2, 2021

Irreplaceable Language: Losing and Reclaiming Our Mother Tongues

An Event with Talk and Roundtable
Landscapes: Irreplaceable Languages

On January 29, 2021, the Language Research Centre hosted a virtual event on language reclamation, featuring a talk by linguist Julie Sedivy and a roundtable with representatives from five language communities in the Calgary region.

A conversation started on Friday (January 29, 2021), though the thoughts involved had been in the minds of the participants for years. The Language Research Centre welcomed panelists from across the Calgary and Southern Alberta regions to participate in a panel titled Irreplaceable Language: Losing and Reclaiming Our Mother Tongues. The languages represented on the panel and otherwise mentioned during discussion represent only a small selection of the linguistic diversity present in Calgary and the surrounding regions. Even so, many connections could be drawn from the discussion generated by the panelists.

This event, attended by over 100 people over Zoom, highlighted one of the goals of the Language Research Centre: to be a place for the Calgary community to come together to discuss the topics of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures, and Cultures. After Dr. Martin Wagner, director of the Language Research Centre acknowledged the traditional territories of the people of Treaty Seven and the people of Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III, lands upon which the City and University of Calgary sit, Dr. Betsy Ritter welcomed the keynote speaker, Dr. Julie Sedivy to share her personal story of language loss and reclamation.

Keynote by Dr. Julie Sedivy

Sedivy, whose winding career brought her across the American continent, intersecting topics in language, psychology, and the arts, laid the foundation of her talk with a quote by Stéphane Laporte “if we are proud of who we are, we are proud of the language that made us who we are.” To show what language(s) made Sedivy who she is, she shared a photojournal of her family’s origins in Czechia (Czech Republic, at the time part of Czechoslovakia), her journey to Montréal, Canada, and her eventual adoption of English. She noted that although English was chronologically the fifth language of significance in her life, it quickly became her primary language above her native heritage language of Czech, and now the only one she feels confident and competent enough in as a writer.

Her rapid adoption of English is characteristic of many immigrant children, as the majority language of their new community takes over many of the domains previously held by their heritage language. Because of this, gaps in their heritage language begin to form and linguistic forms begin to fossilize and lose productivity. Sedivy gave an important aside here, noting that these erosive effects of these cases of somewhat voluntary language shift pale in comparison to the attrition caused by forced language shift on survivors of residential schools – effects many Indigenous people across Canada are still experiencing today.

After these initial shifts, in most cases, two or three generations after their arrival in their new country and community, the descendants of immigrant families no longer speak their heritage language, completely taking on the language of the majority as their own native language. This forms the base of the common, yet ominous, saying in the study of language endangerment that any language or language variety is “two to three generations from extinction.” While this is typically only at a very local level for immigrant families, endangered minoritized language varieties that are Indigenous to the area where they are spoken are at risk of the truest sense of this extinction.

So why are these stories of language attrition so widespread, so common that we can have such a community event to discuss it and how we can all help to reclaim them? As Sedivy explained via simile, “Minority languages are like neglected children, living in a family where English (or French or Spanish) gets all of the resources, support, exposure, and praise.” These limited contexts of passive exposure to the heritage language lead to limited contexts of active use of the heritage language, limiting the possible expressions from the ideally infinite expressivity a language-user would like to have.

Compounding on this avalanche of limitations, social biases against minoritized heritage languages exhibited by members of the speech community are easily absorbed by others, including the speakers of those discriminated languages themselves. Why would anyone want to speak a language variety that is so disadvantaged and so disparaged by society? Instead they choose (however bleak of a choice it is) to use the language of the majority.

This strife within the community at large in turn causes intergenerational strife within families of minoritized languages. Sedivy gave a poignant example of these barriers in the case of the honorific system of Korean, a grammatically necessary way of marking words and sentences to show respect to listeners. This feature is, at times, not fully acquired by younger immigrant generations, leading to older generations interpreting it as a lack of respect, rather than what it is: a lack of grammatical knowledge of the Korean language, a long-lasting effect of the initial gaps formed by the first generation of immigrant families.

In addition to the friction between and among families of speakers of minoritized languages, Sedivy reported the individual conflict caused by language loss. Across the world, the loss of the ability to speak a heritage Indigenous language correlates with less success in school, more drug and alcohol abuse, and, most disheartening, higher rates of death by suicide.

After highlighting these costs of language loss, Sedivy ended on a more optimistic note, by showing photos of her recent return to Czechia to explain how the Czech language sits within her today. At the beginning of her visit to her family’s village, she felt overwhelmed by the language barrier and the inability to communicate the ideas she wished to communicate. However, the Czech language, and the joys of being able to communicate in it, returned to her, rather miraculously. As she explains, however, the language was never lost – it was simply buried under the dust of other languages.

This “miracle,” however, is, as Sedivy explained, less miraculous when we examine studies of reclamation of native languages thought to be lost to their speakers. Sedivy points out numerous examples of scenarios like this, when after intervention, and critically, immersion, the language returns to the lips of their speakers and hands of their signers. A particularly moving example of this is of a Japanese American who was interned during World War II. This internment led them to believe that their native Japanese language was lost. However, decades later, under hypnotic intervention, the language returned to them with striking fluency.

Once their language does return, the integration of their user’s identity may occur. Sedivy shared the metaphor lived by the Tłı̨chǫ people, an Athabaskan-speaking Dene First Nations people of the Northwest Territories: “Be strong like two people. Take the best of Tłı̨chǫ culture and blend it with the best of (Canadian) English culture.” Returning to her quote of Laporte, the journey, both linguistic and non-linguistic, that you’ve taken through life helps you to develop multiple perspectives on life. These perspectives allow for greater connection and further collaboration with others in your community. They also provide greater vision of your identity and ways to express your pride in that identity.

Panelist responses

Following Sedivy’s presentation, time was given to invited panelists to give their personal responses, prepared or off the cuff, giving multiple perspectives to the important issue of language loss and reclamation. These panelists represented language backgrounds of several parts of the Calgary community and serve in their own ways as leaders of various language advocacy initiatives.

Noha Mohamed expressed that Sedivy’s notion that language is so deeply tied to culture and heritage resonated with her. Mohamed then briefly shared her own personal journey. She came to Calgary from Egypt to study marketing in order to fulfill her dream of starting an advertising agency. While that dream remains unfulfilled she is nonetheless able to use her marketing skills in her work in radio, where she promotes Arabic language and culture. Despite what she thought was sufficient maintenance of her Arabic skills, she was taken aback upon recently returning to Egypt and needing extra time to process the Egyptian Arabic she had lost some fluency in. She found that because of this, she was perceived as a tourist – in her own home country! However, she noted that she took that as a call to action to not only keep up with her Arabic, but to take on new languages, such as Spanish and French – for those times when she is assumed to be a Spanish- or French-speaking tourist.

Next, Ahstanskiaki Sandra Manyfeathers gave her perspective as a speaker of Blackfoot and a member of the Kainai First Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy. After completing multiple degrees at the University of Calgary, she is currently a doctoral student in Education. She used her time to pay tribute to her late brother, who, by warning her that she was starting to lose the Blackfoot language, inspired her to take up a larger role in the maintenance of the language. Since then, she returned to Kainai (Blood Reserve) from Calgary to do just that. Manyfeathers remarked that despite her feeling that the Blackfoot people bore the responsibility of reclaiming their language, the long-lasting effects of residential schools are still present, so that in addition to covering up their language, survivors preferred to be led, rather than to lead any reclamation effort. Nevertheless, again we were left with a message of hope, as Manyfeathers mentioned the numerous efforts on the Blood Reserve that are giving speakers and learners as many contexts as possible to hear and reclaim the Blackfoot language. She then thanked the School of Language, Linguistics, Literatures & Cultures and its director, Dr. Mark Conliffe, for allowing her to design her Blackfoot language course within the traditional ways of knowing of the Blackfoot people. She claims that this is a crucial part of integrating the language into the lives of the students.

Françoise Sigur-Cloutier then commented on the very moving and fascinating concepts of language loss and reclamation. She shared her own personal story as an immigrant to Calgary from Toulouse, France. She came here in 1969, expecting the newly enacted Official Languages Act would provide that her French would be welcome in the Calgary community. However, she found that she would have to work hard—indeed, to make it the “fight of her life”—to ensure such acceptance and support for francophones in Calgary, and in particular for her children, who, she reported, had no French immersion school to attend at that time. Over fifty years (and a couple generations) later, there still remains much work to be done—even though the outlook for French in Calgary has improved, especially concerning educational offerings in the city, with some of her grandchildren maintaining their French language. Sigur-Cloutier also pointed out that she found it quite curious that she was talking about this in English, noting that it might be substantially different had she given these remarks in French. Wagner repeated that as an ongoing question: What does it mean to recount efforts of maintenance of non-English languages, but to do so in English?

Providing her point of view as a speaker and teacher of Mandarin Chinese, as well as an immigrant mother, Dr. Liping Zhu commented on how much the situation has changed for Mandarin in Calgary since she arrived here in 1991. At that time, there was no support for Mandarin programs by the Calgary Board of Education, but after inspiration from programs in Edmonton, they were soon established in Calgary by 2000. Now there are bilingual programs in elementary and junior high schools as well as Chinese language and culture programs at the high school level in Calgary, showing how quickly programs can grow when given some level of institutional support. This statistical success also surfaces as individual success in Zhu’s classroom. Where five years ago she only had a single fluent student in her grade 10 class, there are now five taking the opportunity to maintain their mother tongue and/or gain proficiency in writing it.

Trent Fox, a member of the Stoney Nakoda and education scholar, wrapped up the panelist responses by highlighting the importance of preservation and maintenance of Indigenous languages. Building on a quote by Cree scholar and language advocate Dr. Verna J. Kirkness that it is “adamant that Indigenous languages be preserved,” Fox explained that when you take away a people’s language, you take away the rituals and songs that are in that language. When their language is lost, massive parts of their culture are lost along with it. Preserving those languages is easier said than done however, and there are predictions that out of the dozens of Indigenous languages in Canada today, only three or four will still be being spoken in 100 years. Thus, the challenges facing Indigenous communities are daunting. However, they are not insurmountable. Fox feels that some of these challenges are institutional, where there is a lack of consistent, widespread support, including a lack of training of members of Indigenous communities to be teachers of their languages. Furthermore, where the Dakota and Nakoda people used to be more unified, they have splintered due to their separation across different reserves. This has caused different dialects to diverge, meaning there can be less centralized support for all Dakota and Nakoda languages. Fox remains hopeful that by emphasizing linguistics and literacy in their languages, universities can help train Indigenous academics and educators to better document their languages.

Community responses and questions

Following the insights from the panelists, the floor was opened to the community members in attendance to add their thoughts and ask questions to continue the conversation about language loss and reclamation.

The first question was concerning attitudes towards languages and language varieties that exist across society. These attitudes are linked to very deeply held notions and beliefs about identity. How then can we raise our children not to develop particularly negative or damaging attitudes about other linguistic groups?

Sedivy responded that “kids seem to believe that if you speak a language at a certain age, you can’t change,” citing psychological studies finding that they appear to believe that it’s more likely for someone to change their race than for them to change their language. Such psychological biases are hard to override or undo, but Sedivy suggests that we strive for our children to have more exposure to linguistic variation and have honest conversations about the differences they notice.

Next, a community member mentioned that there are more schools and programs in Canada for immigrant languages than there are for Indigenous languages, building on the ideas presented by Manyfeathers and Fox. This community member admitted that as a survivor of residential school, they thought they had lost their language, but echoing Sedivy’s notion that language isn’t lost, simply covered in dust, they were able to reclaim it for themself. Their question for the panelists was “What can we do to get our kids involved in the language?”

Manyfeathers responded that when her students hear the language, it’s music to their ears and medicine to their spirit, even if they don’t understand it. Eventually though, with more immersion and less reliance on the majority language, the language will come to them. Mohamed proposed that we try to include reference to other aspects of culture, such as art and music, when teaching and using the heritage language. Using the language to bond with older generations, she feels, is a more enticing reason to use the language than the common practice of bonding over trauma. Building on this, Fox suggested that instead of focusing on the past, we should instead look to the future, in the hope of reclaiming our languages.

Toward that future of reclamation, this conversation will continue. This was not the start of this conversation, nor is it the conclusion. This is simply a continuation of it. With this continuation, the LRC hopes that more connections will be made among the Calgary community so that we can all help and teach each other lessons in loss and reclamation.