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A Gift of Language

Sara General

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Sge:no Swagwe:goh! Hi everyone! 

I've been holding onto this very exciting news for the last few weeks and now that it is September, I am super excited to share that starting tomorrow, I will be taking a year off to do more intensive language learning! 

Those of you who have been following the blog may know that for the past year or so, my husband and I have been making a concentrated effort to speak more of the Cayuga language in our home. The results of this effort have been really inspiring. The majority of our baby’s new words are all in Cayuga and our three-year old daughter also is able to speak and understand a lot of the language as well. This made us realize that things would moving along faster and even more language would be spoken in our home if I were to become a more proficient speaker. And so that is what we are going to do: take a year and focus on increasing my speaking proficiency.  

The core of the approach that we are using to learn is called the Master/Apprentice method. This approach was designed for people who have access to a speaker of an Indigenous language but not necessarily a classroom. One of the ideas that we have really taken to heart with this method is the notion that you have to “create your own language situation” (Hinton, 2002)

A few months back, we went to an Indigenous language symposium in Thunder Bay which I made a video blog about here. The experience was really cathartic because I met many of my old friends and acquaintances from when I worked with the Chiefs of Ontario. It was also a reminder that while there are so many issues we need to be advancing as Indigenous Peoples (and we certainly need everyone, everywhere doing all of the work), the work that I’ve personally gravitated to is language, education, art and storytelling. I want to make a concerted effort now to acquire more language and to do this successfully—I have to give more time to it. 

By and large, the research shows that the most successful language learning happens in an immersion environment. And while we can create an immersion environment in our home, the depth of our conversations has been limited by the amount of things that I can say. We realized we needed to be able to get through the rules of the language more quickly. That I needed to memorize the prefixes, suffixes, negations and other elements of the language that elude me in the time we currently devote to Master/Apprentice.

Once problem I’ve encountered in trying to make a greater commitment to language is that this September, I’m starting the final year of my doctorate degree. I’m therefore not in a position to attend an all-day adult immersion program as I still need to spend a portion of my day doing work on my dissertation. And in both cases, I need to do what Cal Newport refers to as “deep work”. “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produces better results in less time. You work as hard as your brain is capable for an extended amount of time without any distractions.” (Newport, 2012)

Up to now, we have done the majority of our language learning at home with our girls. This is something we plan to continue, but we’re now going to be switch gears because it’s incredibly difficult to do distraction-free work at home. And I am very ready to do deep work where it concerns language—especially since I came back from Thunder Bay. When I was there, it became super clear to me that I need to make a stronger commitment and blend a few approaches together to make a class that was unique to our needs. And so, I decided to take a big leap. 

I saved up the money to rent our class and signed a one-year lease for a room that has three big whiteboards and is just down the hall from one of the most successful language learning programs in our community. Over the next year, I'll spend my afternoons (I’ve blocked out 12-4, Monday to Friday) to do deep work to become more familiar with the rules of Cayuga in an immersion/distraction free environment. Some of this time I will spend with my husband and some of it I will spend working on my own. Most importantly, there will be dedicated time in my day for my learning.

 The first day we got our classroom. 

The first day we got our classroom. 

 Kehte hanging up paradigm charts. 

Kehte hanging up paradigm charts. 

 Adding some colour & posters. 

Adding some colour & posters. 

 Our bookcases. We got a lovely paradigm game from the local immersion school. 

Our bookcases. We got a lovely paradigm game from the local immersion school. 

 After scrubbing our white boards clean, this was the first thing we wrote on them!

After scrubbing our white boards clean, this was the first thing we wrote on them!

Kehte and I are both very excited about the year ahead, and I’m very grateful for the support I’ve gotten from my work and my school. I’m also somewhat nervous. But all in all, it’s a good nervous and because we’ve already landed on a combination of ways to use audio resources, transcribing, drills, immersion conversation, and other strategies to shape our effort, I feel really positive about our movement forward. 

I’m also happy and grateful because as part of his work, my husband created a program framework and adapted the first year of the successful language program that I mentioned for Cayuga, so we have a strong year of proven curriculum to draw from. It’s super exciting. Anyways. we will share more about our process as our year progresses, but I just wanted to show a few snapshots of our new classroom! Isn’t it gorgeous? Hooray for language learning and wish us luck :).

Also, today is my birthday! So it seems like an extra special day to celebrate & to give myself a gift of time to try and be a better speaker :). 

S.