Finding the words: A Mi’kmaw language app helps Oscar reconnect

Written by Oscar Baker

Oscar is an award-winning multimedia reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation and St. Augustine, Fla. Winner of the David Adams Richards award for non-fiction writing for The Violent Ones. Follow him on Twitter @oggycane4lyfe

April 11, 2018

I’m at my mothers wake. My heart still feels shattered. I’m a shell of myself with no time to mourn, I’m still trying to make sure all the guests are taken care of. I have to make sure my elders don’t slip on the icy driveway and steps. My sogi Vina (aunt) says a bunch of words, I stare at her blankly, I know in my heart those words should mean something. They are my mother tongue, but even reading her lips gives no hint. My mouth is agape hoping someone would relieve me from drowning in the embarrassment of not knowing Mi’kmaq, maybe at least one English clue. Instead I’m left guessing.

I remember at least understanding the language as a small child. Maybe because my mother and migijto Dora spoke it at home. Now it’s as foreign to me as Mandarin. Sure, I know some greetings and can fumble through some swear words, but I think my seven-year-old niece knows more than me. I’m determined to learn, and there’s an app for that.

I’ve always been tempted to learn Spanish. I took Latin in high school because I figured if I knew the roots of Romantic languages I could learn more languages. Ten years later I only know one. I didn’t pay much attention to declensions and verbs. Instead I pleaded with Mr. Sox, my Latin teacher, to retell the story of Hector and Aeneas. I have a renewed commitment to focus and discipline, so I searched for a Spanish language app, and a voice inside me asked “Why not your own language.”

So now I’ve been working with L’nui’suti, a Mi’kmaq language app, to learn my language. It was developed by Yolanda Denny, Gerald Gloade, Faye Googoo, J.R. Isadore, Jane Meader and Blaire Goulde of Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, which advocates educational and language rights for Mi’kmaq people. Goulde said the team felt compelled to create the app because the language is threatened.

“Languages are suffering and declining in our nations, part of the blame is technology – so we want to use technology to revitalize language through private users who download our apps,” said Goulde in an email.

The Catalogue of Endangered Languages Project lists the Mi’kmaq language as threatened. It lists 8,145 Mi’kmaq speakers out of 20,000 Mi’kmaw people. The data was collected by the University of Hawaii and the First Peoples Cultural Council, with the help of other universities and it maintains a comprehensive lists of threatened or endangered languages throughout the world.

I know it will be a long journey to learning my language but it’ll be worth it. I’ve struggled with identity as a biracial adult. It won’t have all the answers. But maybe it can be a source of pride. Most linguist say the best way to learn a language is to totally immerse oneself. That’s not an option for me.

The best I can do is dedicate an hour a day to read the language and speak it to myself in the mirror. Maybe I’ll even get brave enough to speak it to my family someday. I failed at a lot of stuff, but I really feel in my heart that even trying this I’m already succeeding at it.

I’ve always heard language is a part of us as Mi’kmaw people. I never felt that way. Maybe because I never spoke or understood it. There were times hearing my mother saying she loved me in our language and it always felt more sincere. I’m still growing and I think as I head down the road of understanding maybe I’ll grow a little closer to myself.

Although it’s hard to press through with so much doubt. I was actually told by a close friend and also by a trusted mentor that I’d be better served learning French, because Mi’kmaq was a dying language. Others critiqued the app’s dialect. I’m starting to realize there’s always critics but if you want something just do it.

I’ll update up my progress routinely. I’m hoping with enough practice I can master at least a few greetings by summer’s end. Excuses come easy to me and they’re as treacherous as an avalanche piling up. But it’s important to have one great reason to try. Nmultis.  


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