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What Writing Has Taught Me About Learning To Speak Cayuga

Sara General

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Are you interested in learning a language? I am. Here’s the thing: the language I’m most interested in learning is not one you can go to another country and become immersed in. Since immersion is widely believed to be one of, if not the most, successful ways to learn a language this presents some interesting challenges to learning Cayuga. Though it may seem odd, writing—and everything I’ve learned about writing, is helping me to meet them.

 

Gayogo̲honoˀ (Cayuga) is one of the six languages of the Haudenosaunee People. It is a language that is Indigenous to Turtle Island. And because of the ongoing impacts of colonization and assimilation, it is also a critically endangered language. For example, there are less than a hundred first language Cayuga speakers in my community. Fortunately for us, there are also passionate and hard working people doing their best to vitalize the Cayuga language and they’ve inspired me to do everything I can to become a proficient speaker as well.

 

Still, despite this very great desire to learn, I didn’t start in earnest until after I had my daughter in May of 2014.  Over the last year I’ve taken classes, read books, listened to recordings and talked about my desire to learn. These things are all beneficial in their own way, but I’ve come to realize these activities alone will not make me a speaker. (At times, they’ve reminded me a little of when I used to talk about wanting to be a writer, without actually making a habit of writing). But what they’ve also done is help me to learn more words, gain more confidence and understand what I must do to become a better speaker-which for me, is just as valuable.

 

So what exactly do I mean when I say I want to be a better speaker? Well, the language programs in my community utilize the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages guidelines to help evaluate student speaking proficiency, the broad categories of which are: novice, intermediate, advanced, superior, and distinguished. There are also subcategories: low, mid and high. After much consideration, I decided that my long term speaking proficiency goal is Intermediate Low. Once I reach that goal, I will choose a new one. 

 

In September 2014, I took an informal OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview) that placed me firmly in the novice low category. Clearly, I have a long way to go to reach my goal! But I have a plan. It includes classes, books, transcriptions, master-apprentice sessions, TPR, writing stories in Cayuga and much, much more. I’ll be blogging about these more in the future as a way to share resources with others who are learning Cayuga and also to keep me motivated.

 

So, I said that writing has helped me to become a better speaker. It’s true, and here's how. One of the simple rules of becoming a writer that everyone from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman to my wonderful Twitter friends has had to learn is this: to become a writer, you have to write. The same thing applies to learning a language. If you want to become a speaker, you have to speak. It’s literally that simple.

 

Don’t get me wrong. There are challenges. Huge challenges. Gigantic obstacles that can seem impossible to overcome. But guess what? You can overcome them.

 

When I first started writing my novel, it felt like an impossible task. I wanted it so badly but I couldn’t imagine how I would ever find the time to do it. But I did. I carved out a little bit of time every day and little by little, my story grew until my first draft was finished. Of course, there were good days and bad days. (Raise your hand if you’ve written five thousand words one day and only two hundred the next).

 

I’ve had good and bad days learning to speak, too. Thankfully, writing has already shown me that patience and perseverance can help you achieve things you didn’t think you could and that sometimes, you have to start small and go one word at a time. That’s perfectly okay. For writing and speaking. After all, every word you learn and then speak helps you to become a better speaker. And just as they do in writing: those words add up.

 

And you know what? It’s completely awesome when they do.

 

Nyo:ˀ dęjigyada:tgęˀ!

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