Putting Learning to Good Use

It’s likely that every frustrated student has at some point thought “when am I ever going to use this? This week’s post is an example of how students put what they learned to real use in a way that benefitted a community, and an entire language.

In 2012, a group of students from a University of Toronto undergraduate class on language revitalization took what they learned in the classroom, and shared their knowledge with language activists. They decided to work on the Ojibwe language with the help of Revival Program Coordinator Alan Corbiere. Ojibwe is a polysynthetic indigenous language, meaning that that different parts can join together in one word, which means words can look big and intimidating to English-speakers. For example, “He listens to the other one” could be expressed as a single, large word (obizindawaan).

I was lucky to speak with Paulina Lyskawa, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, about the project her and her classmates worked on, and continue to work on, with the help of Professor Alana Johns. The result of the project was a website of traditional Ojibwe stories called Baadwewedamojig that have been transcribed and translated, some for the first time in a century.

[A recording of the story of Nenabosho from the Baadwewedamojig website]


Michael Iannozzi : To start, what is Ojibwe?

Paulina Lyskawa : Ojibwe, or Anishinaabemowin, is one of the First Nations languages spoken in Canada and the US.

MI : How many speakers are there?

PL : It depends how you count of course. We have found that people are very shy to report that they speak any Ojibwe because they think they are not proficient enough, whereas in fact, we thought that they can carry a conversation quite easily. The crucial thing is that Ojibwe is doing relatively well compared to other indigenous languages of North America; perhaps because there has been a lot of effort into its revitalization. So we see that it has been worthwhile and we want to contribute a bit more.

MI : What does it looks like, and what does it sound like?

PL : We quickly learned not to be intimidated by these long, long words and soon we started intuitively, and often correctly, breaking them down into their appropriate. It was crucial for two reasons – if for some reason we wanted to double-check the meaning in the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, we had a better chance to do it by root.

MI : Are there related languages spoken currently?

PL : Ojibwe is an Algonquian language, so it is closely related to Cree as well as Mi’kmaq, Blackfoot and many others.

MI : Now turning to you, what first got you interested in the study of Ojibwe?

PL : It started with the course LIN 458 (Revitalizing Languages). The course shows that various indigenous languages around the world face similar problems. We hear a lot of stories in the media like “The last speaker of X died.” But they rarely dig deeper into the story of what had been happening to this language before it came to the verge of extinction. Alternatively, we hear stories about communities that are successful in their attempts to bring the language back like the exemplar case of Māori or Hawaiian, but we don’t realize how much effort it entailed, and that the same methods cannot always be replicated 1:1 in another language.

I, before taking this course, didn’t know much about the problems of indigenous languages in Canada, because I didn’t grow up here. So I learned A LOT.

MI : And your project “Baadwewedamojig”, how was it built?

PL : The class started with documentaries and academic literature on language revitalization – why languages become endangered, whether there is any sense in preserving or revitalizing them, and, if yes, how to go about it. From early on, we were thinking of what final group project we could come up with to put our newly acquired knowledge to use. Then, Prof. Alana Johns met Alan Corbiere, a scholar and an Anishinaabe from M’Chigeeng First Nation. He came up with the idea of how to utilize the skills of Linguistics major students in a project that he started some time before.

MI : What are the Baadwewedamojig project’s goals?

PL : He showed us a collection of Ojibwe stories transcribed by a linguist, William Jones, at the beginning of the 20th century. It is quite important knowing the fact that while the culture of story-telling is very rich, it is mainly oral. Imagine, what an amount of work and expertise Jones showed by listening to various stories told by at least two different speakers, and being able to transcribe it phonetically. Nevertheless, it is hardly of any use for Ojibwe speakers nowadays, because the kind of phonetic ‘code’ Jones used is bizarre and not familiar to linguists nowadays. So first, a sub-team of students came up with a systematic key to decipher these transcriptions based on Alan Corbiere’s previous transliterations of a few stories and we added to it as we went along. Alan, being the only person on our team who actually spoke Ojibwe, had to proofread everything and sometimes consult more proficient speakers.

MI : What is the role of the linguist and what is the role of the community elders in a project like this?

PL : I really liked that the idea came directly from Alan, the member of the community rather than us, which would have felt like non-speakers imposing our opinion that their language needs our help. And particularly, despite the fact that very few people knew any words in Ojibwe, we were still able to help! I was so proud that my linguistic knowledge could be applied in such a cool and important project.

MI : In a class of linguistics students, what was the main challenge to working on this project?

PL : It was pretty straightforward to have it as a class project where every student had an assigned story to “translate” the text from Jones’ code to the new spelling system. After the course ended, we knew that abandoning the project at this point would be contradict the idea to get truly involved. So a few of us, Robin McLeod, Annita Chow, Richard Gananathan and I, decided to keep transliterating, and to think of how to make these resources useful to Ojibwe speakers. There were some trivial problems like how to find time for the project outside everyone’s busy schedules. Moreover, we faced other issues like how to make it available to the wide public. Then came a student of computer sciences who constructed a great, easy-to-navigate website where the stories are published. Finally, a big dilemma we faced is that some stories are traditionally supposed to be told only during certain seasons, thus are we violating the cultural norms by making them available all year round? [This is a problem almost all archives face, and our post about cultural licences touches on this tricky issue]

MI : And what was the main advantage?

PL : Alan Corbiere filled us with his enthusiasm, and he is such a dedicated person we really feel that we did a good job. Working under the supervision of Alan, as well as Prof. Johns, was great because they are absolute experts in this field.

MI : What are the advantages of modern technology and the internet in building tools for a language?

PL : The stories are a great teaching tool. Each one is easily accessible in three different formats: first, each sentence in Ojibwe can be immediately followed by a translation in English, which is great for less proficient speakers or for careful language analysis; second, a column of Ojibwe text next to an English one for more advanced speakers; as well as an Ojibwe-only version, for example for cultural teaching to speakers of all levels. Furthermore, some stories are available in two versions – classic and Manitoulin Island dialect. Finally, increasingly, more stories are now available with sound files recorded by a native speaker.

MI : From a purely technological point-of-view, what have been some of the challenges (in terms of hardware and software) in building this website?

PL : Technology is transient. Take CDs for example, not every computer has a CD reader nowadays, let alone some other older technologies like tapes or floppy disks. Similarly with software, once a program is outdated, some file formats may not be easily opened. So as a long-term goal, we have to stay on top of things, and if our website keeps being used, it will need to be updated accordingly to new technology. As a short-term goal, we had to keep in mind that some people will leave the project and new ones may join, so all the procedures had to be transparent.

MI : On the website I see that there is a decision to include audio, why is it important to have audio files? And how does this impact interactions with the website?

PL : Having a spoken component gives another dimension to language learning. I can imagine that for self-study, it is an essential piece. For example, many of the students we asked reported that they do study from home – they may not have Ojibwe classes offered in their neighbourhood or perhaps they prefer to do it in their own free time. Every English as a Second Language textbook has audio with it so why not Ojibwe?

MI : If someone wants to learn Ojibwe, what do you feel is the best approach, and how should someone get started?

PL : I know it is easier to say than actually do. I started learning some indigenous languages myself and as soon as I took a break, it all went away immediately. Similarly, for many foreign languages; however, with many of those the resources are much more plentiful. It is very, very, very hard, so good motivation and commitment is the key.

MI : What has been your favourite part of being involved in the project?

PL : The stories are absolutely hilarious. One can easily imagine the main character, Nanabushu actually going through all the adventures. Just read it!

An example of the writing system that had to be updated.

An example of the writing system (on the left) that had to be updated.

A sincere thank you to Paulina Lyskawa and the whole LIN 458 class of 2012. In this linked article, Paulina I think brilliantly summarizes the project and all work that involves peoples or communities, “It’s crucial that if we linguists study languages to develop our own field, at the same time we give back to the people behind these languages”.

She is absolutely right. When people share their homes, community, and language with a researcher, they absolutely must be sure that the community is treated fairly throughout, and that the linguist’s skills and findings are used to benefit the community as much as possible.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi