'We have to create speakers'

Q: Can you talk about your role with Anishinabek Nation? 

A: My role is to advise on methods and approaches used to promote language revitalization among the 39 communities that are part of Anishinabek Nation. I’m to play a key leadership role in raising awareness and supporting the revitalization efforts that are across our whole territories. I have to go find out What’s happening with language in each of the 39 First Nations. Although during COVID, I have to do it virtually.


Q:  How do you see language revitalization happening?

A: We have to create speakers. That is how we are going to save our language. For too long, we’ve been teaching grammar structure — and teaching in English. The best place to start is with the little ones in kindergarten and daycare. There has to be no English in there. Total immersion. Adult speakers can also gain a second language and become fluent in that language.

I was working at Bay Mills Community College (in 2003) when they turned their language program into an immersion program. A student came to me and said I want to become a speaker. The student gave me this book called The Natural Approach: Second Language Acquisition in the Classroom. It’s about doing it naturally. It’s about using real things when you’re talking in the language. 

It took me a while to get the gist of it. At first I was making flash cards and it just wasn’t jiving. Then one day I was sitting at a dentist’s office, and I saw this kids’ book on the table. Albert’s Old Shoes. I decided to bring the things that were in the book and tell the story in Anishinaabemowin. I brought a soccer ball, blanket, I borrowed my son’s white shoes, another pair of old brown shoes and I tried it. I told a story.

I was taught by my mentor that all we need to deliver immersion instruction is our body and facial expressions. If you are fluent in the language, you have everything you need to deliver immersion programming. You just have to speak in the language all the time. Use no English words

During Q & A periods, my students can answer me in English, but I don’t speak English at all. That’s the student’s job in an immersion class: listen, watch, grab the words. Get the gist of the story, get the message.


Q: What does it take to become fluent?

A:   After 100 hours of listening to an immersion instructor there’s light at the end of the tunnel. They will say ‘I know what she’s talking about.’
about 2,000 hours... they understand 90 per cent. They might say simple words.
6,000 hours a person becomes functionally bilingual.
12,000 hours, a person is fluent.

If we are going to use our education systems, and our schools to create speakers we need to look to what the French people did in Saint-Lambert, Quebec in 1965. They said our kids are not coming out of Grade 8 speaking the language. . . So a group of people got together and created immersion kindergarten where everything was in French.  No English at all. The cook, the cleaner, the busdriver all spoke French all the time. By the time those students came out of Grade 8, they were fluent in French.



Q: What are some challenges within education systems? 

A: Teachers get afraid. ‘ How am I going to teach mathematics? How will I teach science? What are the words I’m going to use?’ There is so much in (the Ontario) curriculum they have to follow. And with Native-as-Second-Language, are they going to teach 2000 hours? No, they're going to teach 20 minutes a day. 

Our people are oral. We do speaking and listening. In our culture there was no reading and writing.

I developed the very first Native-as-a-Second-Language program in 1973, working with students in Sault Ste. Marie. The Anishinaabe students didn't want to learn French. They said we want to learn our own language. So, I borrowed the French language teacher’s curriculum. I had 20 minutes a day.


Q: How did you become fluent? 

A: I was born into a fluent community. Hardly anybody spoke English. That was on Manitoulin Island in the little village of Salt Bay in Wiikwemikoong.  My parents kept my older sister back two years and waited for me to turn five, then they took us to Spanish Residential School. And we learned English there.  Not in a good way.

The leading linguist, Noam Chompsky, says every human being has a part of the brain which acts naturally in acquiring languages. We don’t teach, we just speak. We acquire a language. We don’t learn it.


Q: How does acquiring language work in a daycare or school setting?  

A: I’ve been spending the last few years at the daycare. I speak only the language to the kids. ‘Let me help you put your jacket on. Where’s your hat? I’ll help you put your boots on.’ It’s all in the language. From 8:30 to 12:30, speak only the language to those kids. 

One little boy, he’s about three and a half. He’d been there since he was a baby.And one day, I was dressing the kids up when they were going outside and this little boy walks by. I said to him ‘where are you going’ in the language.


He answered me in the language. He said "Gojiing."


My heart was full


Q: How do you look on the immersion programming education leaders are doing in First Nation communities?

A: I know communities are doing immersion. I do know Six Nations has been very successful and Akwesasne has immersion school and the grandparents would speak Mohawk to them. You need a large number of speakers. A lot of communities do not have speakers. The speakers have to be trained. So (some First Nations) have to find speakers from other communities.


Q: How do you see communities overcoming challenges? 

A: In Wiikwemkoong, they’ve started the Nawewin Gamik: The Language House. They get speakers to go in. It’s a house, a big living room and mothers and dads can bring their little ones. The little person hears the language. They hear people talking in the language, saying things like ‘Go get that ball over there.’ They play and everything is in the language. Now their mothers probably don’t understand and are probably acquiring at the same time. The speakers want to provide the language for these kids. A place they can go. 


Q:  How does language immersion fit in distinct education systems? 

A: Language acquisition doesn’t follow a curriculum. When you were young and acquired English, did your parents have a curriculum? No.

With immersion, you’re not teaching language, you’re teaching in the language. The immersion is not the curriculum, the immersion is talking about rain when it’s raining, but in the language.

There are differences between acquiring and learning a language.

Learning a language is what happens in school. It’s conscious, you’re
using your cognitive. Acquiring a language is subconscious. 

It’s like that little guy who said Gojiing. I never taught them the word. 

I fully believe immersion is the way to go. And it’s relatively permanent. Students are in daycare for four years. After, those kids are spontaneously producing speech. If the parents are not speaking the language, We have to work on that gap as well. We have to teach the parents as well.


Q: What should advocates like FNWSC be doing around language immersion? 

A: I think communities have to ask, 'Do we want fluent speakers? Do we want our language to be alive?' And there is a roadblock. A lot of communities don't have speakers. They have to borrow from nearby communities. 

We need to train speakers to become immersion instructors. Some communities are lucky that they have a lot of speakers. But look at the age of those speakers. They are all getting to be over 50. 

We need to hurry up because time is of the essence. It’s crucial.


Barbara, who is Nishnaabe-kwe, formerly from Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, lives in Garden River First Nation. She has been teaching Anishinaabemowin for decades with a focus on language immersion as the way to create speakers.  


For more on Barbara Nolan, check out her website at BarbaraNolan.com.