What makes you say that?

Today I spoke with Professor Molly Babel of UBC. Our conversation was about interaction, and how we create predictions and expectations when we meet people. These predictions and expectations can help us to get on the same “wavelength” as our conversation partner, or they can make us “tune-out” before we’ve even heard them speak.

So, please enjoy our interview. It has a little of everything you’d expect: research, stereotypes, LEGOs, and Lord of the Rings.

[Lab at UBC where Professor Babel does her research]

[Lab at UBC where Professor Babel’s research is conducted]

MI : As an introduction, what do you study about language?

MB : What I study is how we deal with phonetic variability in spoken language; both from the way that we, ourselves, perform and produce it, but more from the side of what we as listeners do with the variation in other people’s voices. Or to put it more simply: how do we handle the fact that everyone sounds different? Also, how do we manage the fact that some of those differences in the way other people sound are socially meaningful, but others are just background that we can choose to tune out.

MI : How do we relate to our society through our speech, and that of other people?

MB : Our knowledge of people and society manifests itself in speech in two ways: through how we perform speech ourselves (speech production), and through our expectations of how we think others will perform speech (speech perception).

From the moment we open our mouths, we reveal our social and individual characteristics. Our voices provide subtle and not-so-subtle cues to gender, age, where we are from, our emotional state, etc.

We change our speech patterns to fit different social contexts: we don’t speak the same way to family or strangers, infants or our same-aged peers, friends or authority figures. These changes are gross reflections of formality, in some cases, but we also make style shifts that are more personal and reflect our social identities.

As listeners, we make associations and come to expect certain speech patterns from certain individuals or groups of individuals. For example, we scale our expectations for acoustic dimensions like an individual’s pitch based on whether they are male or female because we have learned that men generally have lower-pitched voices than women, as men tend to be comparatively larger in size. Learning these patterns helps us efficiently process voices we have never heard before. But, these learned patterns can also veer dangerously into the territory of stereotypes.

MI : How do we build our expectations of how we think someone will perform? And how do we react when we’ve judged the style incorrectly of both our production and theirs?

MB : Well, for example, you would know some things about me before you heard my voice. You would build a rough assumption of how I would sound based on your previous examples of speaking with other professors.

We also constantly update those expectations. A student and I recently published a paper about these issues (Babel & Russell, 2015). We took 12 locally-born BC residents. 6 were white Canadians, and 6 were Chinese-Canadians; all were locally-born, and all were native English speakers.

We created an intelligibility test by having all of our 12 speakers read sentences. Then we added background noise to those sentences; otherwise understanding them would be too easy. We then presented listeners with trials where they saw a photo of the face of the speaker, and others where they didn’t see the photos. We had 40 UBC students do this experiment.

When they didn’t the photo of who they were listening to, everyone was roughly equally intelligible—there were no differences. However, when people saw the pictures of the speakers then intelligibility of the Chinese-Canadians went down.

So while this is a sad finding, we think it is important to discuss in a public space. We did many analyses with this data, and the results suggest that people just expect Canadian-Chinese speakers to have a non-native accent. This is an example of a kind of expectation that is bad. The expectation that you might have before speaking to me that I’m female, that I’m roughly a certain age, or going to speak within a certain range of frequencies; that’s good because it helps you understand me.

So your question about expectations, and how we update them, is a huge one. One of the things we’re going to look at next is how long does it take people to say, “OK these Chinese-Canadians do not have non-native accents. I can go ahead and process this speech the same way I would for any other local speaker”.

MI : So is it that the listener would be expecting to have difficulty, and then have to stop and correct that misjudgement?

MB : I wouldn’t even say that you would be expecting to have difficulty, just that you were expecting something else, and you don’t get what you were expecting, and so that mismatch is what gives you a temporary decrease in understanding

So, for example, if you first heard my voice, and I had an Australian accent, there would be a “hey-wait-a-second moment” on your end, and you would have to stop and readjust your expectations.

Another study I’m hoping to do is to look at how much of those expectations are based on race and ethnicity. Are people better able to pick up on whether a speaker has a local or non-local accent based on what they look like. In other words: how much of our expectations of who sounds like a Vancouver-Canadian-English speaker is based on being white.

One of the ways that, to go back to your first question, I would describe what I’m doing is looking at how stereotypes and prejudice affect us in real-time for spoken-language processing. Often, those are sad results, but those are important results; because they actually impact people.

MI : How do people close (or widen) the distance between themselves and others in a conversation through their speech? And what are we “saying” by closing or widening that distance?

MB : If someone wants to decrease the social distance between herself and an interlocutor [The person she is speaking with], she can increase the similarity of their speech patterns through a process called convergence. Say she wants to increase the social distance – she can diverge her speech patterns, making them less similar to those of her interlocutor. We make these kinds of changes in conversation to grease the social wheels of interaction.

We can definitely close or widen the gap between us and our conversation partner. I’ve been at dinner parties where I’m happily talking with someone, we’re definitely moving toward a middle ground between our two speech styles, and then they say something that I disagree with or might find offensive. Then I become a completely different person in terms of my speech style for the rest of that conversation.

MI : Do you feel that this is done automatically, or is it something that is learned from seeing others do it?

MB : This is a complicated question. To some extent, we engage in these patterns of accommodation automatically. We certainly don’t say to ourselves, “a-ha! In order to get what I want in this situation, I’m going to shift my vowels to match this person’s.” On some level, we might consciously be aware of admiring a person who we find ourselves imitating. There is evidence that imitative linguistic behaviours are part of how we learn language, but we certainly learn how to use accommodative strategies in socially appropriate ways. Overly converging with someone’s speech patterns is a great way to alienate someone.

What I mean by that is that it can sound fake, or overly manipulative. In many ways, all of these different types of accommodating one another while speaking are means of manipulating one another. However, you can certainly overdo it, or be too obvious about it.

MI : How do people perceive the speech of others that are particularly similar, or especially distinct from their own accent/dialect?

MB : Group membership is important to us as people, and identifying others as in-group (members of our social groups) and out-group (not-members of our social groups) is something we do. When we hear individuals who sound like us, we positively evaluate them, in part because they are part of our in-group. Accents and dialects that are different from our own often, but not always, come with social labels.

For example, many speakers of North American English perceive many British varieties of English as more intelligent-sounding. This is based on stereotypes we have created, not because of anything inherently intelligent-sounding in British English.

If you a watch a film, in many cases the hero or most attractive looking character will speak the most standard variety of that language. I recently rewatched the Lord of the Rings movies, and Aragorn and Legolas, who are both handsome and heroic, speak with Standard English accents. Gimli, a dwarf, is arguably less attractive and less of a main character – he speaks with a less standard accent. Media helps perpetuate and feed stereotypes and associations about accent.

MI : Are there things beyond the way someone is speaking that shapes how they are perceived in a conversation?

MB : Speech and language is just one of many social signals we use to evaluate others. How we dress, what we smell like, our posture, our facial expressions – these are all social signals we present and that others use to evaluate us, for better or for worse. For example, if someone wears a lot of cologne or perfume that will trigger certain judgements about that person for us.

MI : How do you collect the speech you use for your research, and how important is it that that speech be “natural” or by a speaker who is at-ease and comfortable?

MB : We use different methods of collecting spoken language for different types of projects. Sometimes we have people read words or sentences. Sometimes we have people tell stories along with video prompts. Recently, Jen Abel, one of my PhD students, collected speech from pairs of individuals who were playing with LEGOs together. By working on a given task together, the two individuals [who don’t know one another] have something to keep talking about, which avoids awkward pauses and silences, and produces more natural speech.

It is important for linguists to study many different styles of language, as language is a multi-faceted and diverse system. The different styles show us the range of things speakers know about their language.

MI : What would you like to do next with your research?

MB : Some of my students’ and my more recent projects have been looking into our linguistic expectations and predictions. Our expectations and predictions about upcoming linguistic events are based on linguistic or social knowledge and we want to know how those expectations interact with what we actually experience to give us what we ultimately perceive.

MI : What is your favourite part of your work?

MB : The best part of my job is being able to curiously engage in the process of discovery. We have a lot to learn about how speech works!

[Waveform of my gramma saying, "That's like back in the old days"]

[Waveform of my gramma saying, “That’s like back in the ol’ days”]

A sincere thanks to Molly Babel.

Professor Babel’s work has produced some discomforting results about stereotypes and judgements. However, they are very important findings because they are part of our daily reality, and affect people continuously.

The importance of our perceptions and expectations when speaking with others is that the stereotypes can be useful (they can help us identify situations and emotions), and they can also be hurtful, as her research has shown.

While we don’t consciously think, when we are introduced to someone, of an expected frequency in their voice, our brains are making that leap. Our brain can also subconsciously make negative leaps, so by being more conscious about how we form our conceptions of others can help us reduce the harm we might unintentionally cause. It’s not easy, but we can all agree that reducing hurtful stereotypes is a good thing.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

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National Aboriginal Day

Throughout the month of June I’ve been tweeting what the day of the week is called in various Canadian First Nations and Inuit languages. Well, today is June 21 and it is also National Aboriginal Day in Canada.

The histories of Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples tell us of peoples with cultures and societies as complex, insightful, and unique as any in the world. These histories are not just of those peoples, but of Canada, and of our shared today.

On the National Aboriginal Day website it says, “[Today] is a special day to celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding achievements of First NationsInuit and Métis peoples in Canada.” While we strive to do that today, I think it is also important to think about connecting with Aboriginal history, culture and achievements in a meaningful way, every day. For some Canadians, it may feel as if the Aboriginal peoples in Canada are another culture—that the study of their histories and cultures can seem like studying the history and culture of a group in a far-away land, or in a time long-past. But this is wrong, and those histories, cultures, and heritages are those of the peoples who were here, on the land where I am writing this, and likely on the land where you’re reading this, and indeed on the land across what is today the nation of Canada.

We therefore owe it to ourselves, to the Aboriginal peoples here, and indeed to Canada as a collective whole of all of us, Aboriginal and not, to know about the history of our land, and of the peoples who were here, and still are.

I would like to suggest, in the spirit of National Aboriginal Day, that you learn about the people(s) who share, and shared, the land you are sitting on right now. And, as this is the page of a Language Museum, that you learn something about a language they speak.

For example, as I write this I am in my childhood (and parents’) home in Sarnia, Ontario. The land I am sitting on is that of the Niswi-mishkodewin, or Peoples of the Three Fires. These are the nations of the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples. So I have challenged myself to learn some Anishinaabe (or Ojibwe) today, and in so doing also learn about the cultures, and histories of those nations.

So that is a little challenge I’d like to put to you today. If you’re reading this you likely love language, and you likely have something warm in your heart for Canada too, and I can’t think of a greater way to marry those two loves than by learning a bit of one of the many languages of one of the many First Nations, Inuit, or Métis peoples who live, and have lived, in Canada.

 

So, miigwech (“thanks “) and giga-waabamin menawaa (“see you later”).

 

Ganawenindiwag (“take care of each other”),

 

Michael Iannozzi

[Image courtesy of : AADNC.ca]

[Image courtesy of : AADNC.ca]

I’m done the Strathy Unit piece, eh?

This week I spoke with Anastasia Riehl. If the name rings a bell, then, thank you, you’re a loyal reader of our blog, and you likely remember her from my interview with her and Abdullah Sherif about the work of the Endangered Language Alliance of Toronto. However, Professor Riehl wears many hats, and at Queen’s University, she is the Director Of the Strathy Language Unit.

I spoke with her about this excellent resource for the study of Canadian English.

[One of the many projects of the Strathy Language Unit is on Wolfe Island, Ontario

[One of the many projects of the Strathy Language Unit is on Wolfe Island, Ontario]

Michael Iannozzi : First of all, what is the Strathy Language Unit?

Anastasia Riehl : The Strathy Language Unit is a research unit at Queen’s University dedicated to studying the English language as it is used in Canada. It was founded by a bequest from Queen’s alumnus J.R. Strathy almost 35 years ago. Mr. Strathy was very interested in issues of English usage and was dismayed that most discussions of the time focused on Britain or the U.S. He wanted to create a unit devoted solely to Canadian English. It was at the time, and remains, a unique project.

MI : When was the Unit founded? What were its original aims and goals, and how have those changed?

AR : The original focus of the unit was to study “standard” Canadian English and to produce a usage guide. These initiatives remain important aspects of the unit’s work, but both have also changed over time. One change concerns our shifting notions of “standard”. Today most language scholars would dismiss the idea that there is one correct way to speak English in Canada, and a set of rules that we all must follow. This does not make the idea of the “standard” irrelevant, however, but rather opens interesting lines of inquiry about what we view as the standard and why – and how sociolinguistic factors like age, sex, region, ethnicity and social class, to name just a few – shape our notions of the standard. (In fact the first conference held by the Strathy Language Unit was called “In search of the standard”, so this perspective has actually been central to the unit for some time.) The idea of the standard also remains relevant because many people care a great deal about what they perceive as good grammar. If a journalist in your local paper uses a word in a way that readers think is incorrect, the paper will likely get dozens of extremely cranky letters! Why people care so much about language, and what people perceive as correct are also interesting questions.

Another way in which work at the unit has changed – and changed quite drastically in just 35 years – is the advent of new technologies. In the early days of the unit, teams of students scanned documents using large, expensive pieces of equipment in order to create a digital database for language study. Years of such work can now be done in mere hours online. Most early resources of the unit were produced in hard copy and had limited distribution – the corpus of Canadian English, the working papers series, a bibliography of Canadian English. All of these resources are now available online to a much wider audience, along with initiatives that were not possible before, such as our website and blog.

MI : What is the Strathy Corpus of Canadian English ?

AR : The Strathy Corpus of Canadian English is a database of about 50 million words assembled for the purpose of studying English usage and change in Canada, roughly spanning the years 1970-2010. It consists mostly of written language samples but includes some transcripts of spoken language as well. The corpus was one of the first major projects of the Unit. When the first director, W.C. Lougheed, began assembling the corpus in the early 80’s, it was a relatively novel thing to do. Since that time, corpus linguistics has really taken off, aided by changes in technology that have made it much easier to collect and navigate large quantities of data.

In 2013, we worked with Mark Davies at Brigham Young University, who hosts several large corpora such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus, to create a searchable online version of the Strathy Corpus which is now available on his website.

MI : Why is the Strathy corpus different from an entirely spoken corpus? How can fiction, and carefully written pieces of material be used for the study of Canadian English?

AR : Since the Strathy corpus contains mostly (although not entirely) written material, it is different from a spoken corpus in the ways that written language is different from spoken language. Written language tends to be more formal and exhibit change more slowly (certainly in terms of the types of traditional materials in the Strathy corpus, although this may be less the case if we were talking about personal blogs, texts, online forums, etc.). Also, aspects of pronunciation are typically not captured by written language.

You asked about fiction. Something I am particularly interested in is how dialect is represented in fictional dialogue. What aspects of a dialect do writers choose to represent; how do they represent them; and how closely do these aspects correlate with actual speech? In the past couple of years we have had graduate students from the English department exploring these questions. One student, for example, examined the dialogue of Aboriginal English-speaking characters in Canadian literature and grouped the representations of dialect into different categories, including phonetic variation conveyed through the orthography such as <‘bout> for <about> and non-standard verb agreement such as <he come> rather than <he comes>.

MI : What are some of the goals of the Language Unit as it studies Canadian English?

AR : Our goal is to be a valuable resource for students and scholars of Canadian English as well as the general public, so most of our work is focused on creating and distributing resources to facilitate research by others and also undertaking our own data collection projects.

Some of the resources that we have created and maintain include the Strathy Bibliography of Canadian English, our occasional paper series Strathy Student Working Papers on Canadian English, the Strathy website and blog which among other things follows media stories about Canadian English, and the online Strathy Corpus of Canadian English.

As for projects, one of our big long-term projects is recording personal histories of residents of Wolfe Island, Ontario. We have been conducting interviews with island residents for several years now, transcribing the recordings and then creating a database which will be used for research on language and local history. We are also developing a new project that we are quite excited about that we’re calling the Canadian Voices Map. We should have more to share about that one within the next year.

The unit also hosts occasional conferences, such as the 2014 Change and Variation in Canada, supports the undergraduate linguistics course Canadian English at Queen’s and funds student research and conference travel.

MI : What is Wolfe Island, and why has it been important for the Strathy Unit?

AR : Wolfe Island is located in the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Cape Vincent, New York. It is the largest of the Thousand Islands and has a year-round population of about 2000 residents. In 2010 we started recording islanders sharing stories of their lives, in collaboration with the Wolfe Island Historical Society. We are transcribing the interviews and creating a corpus for linguistic and historical research.

We chose Wolfe Island as a research site for several reasons. First, many of the residents are from families that have been on the island for several generations, with deep cultural and linguistic ties. Second, until fairly recently, many residents lived the vast majority of their lives on the island, in the physical sense that travel to and from the island was not always available or easy, and also in terms of communication, with phone service, for example, arriving later to the island than the mainland areas nearby. This means that many islanders had less contact with English speakers outside of their community than was typical on the mainland. We were also encouraged to undertake the project by the support and enthusiasm of the Wolfe Island Historical Society, a local group which had already been collecting oral histories by long-time residents. There is a great deal of pride and interest in island history among the residents, and this has resulted in enthusiastic support for the project within the community.

MI : What is the Guide to Canadian English Usage ?

AR : The Guide to Canadian English Usage was one of the unit’s first main projects. One of Mr. Strathy’s wishes was that the unit produce a usage guide focused on Canada rather than one that looks to Britain or the U.S. as a model.

We usually think of usage guides as “prescriptive” instruments that tell people what to say and how to say it, which is in contrast to the “descriptive” work of linguists which aims to describe what people actually do say based on observations of real speech. This usage guide is different and in a way is not well-served by the term “usage guide”. It focuses on lexical items that are interesting in the Canadian context – in some cases because the words are unique to Canada but in most cases because the words tend to raise questions about usage or spelling in Canada due to their observed variability. In the entries, the editors – Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine – aim to convey their observations about how the words are used based in part on research with the Strathy corpus, in many cases including sample citations from the corpus. It is intended as a usage guide in the sense that someone wondering what the Canadian standard is for the usage or spelling of a certain word can consult the guide; however, the guide usually does not offer one clear answer but rather explains any observed variation.

I would say that this guide actually strikes a nice balance between prescriptive and descriptive aims. The introduction to the guide includes a great discussion of these often competing perspectives.

MI : How has the work done at the Language Unit changed over the past couple decades due to the changing makeup of our country’s demographics and ethnicities?

AR : One of the areas of Canadian English research that I find the most interesting is how we think about the role of English in our increasingly multilingual urban centres such as Toronto and Vancouver. In the latest census, for example, only 51% of Toronto residents reported English as their mother tongue. How do we define a “standard” for Toronto, and what sort of English do we teach in schools? What varieties of English are spoken in different ethnic enclaves? Are there features of Toronto English that differ from Vancouver English given the different populations of heritage language speakers? There are very interesting research projects underway at U of T and York exploring some of these issues.

MI : One of the things the Strathy Language Unit aims to do is engage the public about Canadian English. How do you think the public can be engaged in talking about Canadian English?

AR : The public is definitely already thinking about and talking about language. Through our website and blog, our projects and events, we hope to encourage the public to think and talk about these issues in the framework of Canada’s unique linguistic history and landscape. Not long ago, the world looked to Britain, and then later to the United States as well, for models of English usage. English in Canada has its own story, its own features and its own varieties that deserve to be studied and celebrated. Like Canada, countries throughout the world are increasingly embracing their own national varieties rather than look to external standards.

MI : How Canadian would you say your speech is?

AR : I am originally from the Midwestern U.S., but after having lived in different English-speaking communities in North America and overseas, I would say my English is now a hybrid! Given the region where I grew up, I do have many features typically associated with Canadian English… lexical items such as “pop” rather than “soda” and aspects of pronunciation such as the back vowel merger (where “cot” and “caught” are pronounced the same). Funnily, in some ways my speech is more “Canadian” than the speech of my students, most of whom are from Southern Ontario. For example, I use “positive anymore” as in “Kids grow up fast anymore”, a syntactic feature sometimes associated with Canada, but I have yet to meet a single student in my Canadian English course over the past five years for whom this is grammatical.

MI : What is your favourite feature of Canadian speech?

AR : I suppose my favorite features of Canadian English are those that, even after years of living in Canada, catch my ear whenever I hear them and that I can’t imagine being able to say myself. One that I notice multiple times a day is be done or be finished followed by a direct object as in I’m done the dishes. Every time I hear this an “ungrammatical” buzzer goes off in my head! It keeps my work fun and interesting.

[Research Assistants hard at work in the Strathy Unit]

[Research Assistants hard at work in the Strathy Unit]

Thank you to Anastasia Riehl for agreeing to be interviewed a second time for our blog.

As a native speaker of Canadian English, it had never occurred to me that there was anything regional or “Canadian” about saying, for example, “I’m finished the interview”. I use this type of phrase all the time, so now I have one more thing to guinea pig myself with, but only after I’m done the blog post.

The Strathy Language Unit is an excellent resource for researchers, Canadian English learners, and anyone with an interest in how Canadians speak English. The Unit has so many projects and resources on-the-go, and there are many we didn’t even cover in this interview, so if you want to learn more you should definitely snoop around their website.

 

Take care eh,

Michael Iannozzi

 

Language Documentation Mapped Out

This week I spoke with Professor Marie-Odile Junker of Carleton University. Originally born in France, she has come to Canada and fallen in love with our country’s Indigenous languages. She is an expert in several areas, and excels at bridging disciplines, connecting people, and organizing projects. These are all things that are essential to language documentation and revitalization. She has incorporated technology and digital media into her work on Algonquian languages without ever forgetting the people behind the data.

I spoke with her about how she views technology as a tool that can help languages survive, and also about her work on the Algonquian Language Atlas, which incorporates many languages, people, and technologies. You should definitely play with this site (after reading this first!).

[This is what the incredible Algonquian Linguistic Atlas looks like]

[This is what the incredible Algonquian Linguistic Atlas looks like, click to embiggen]

Michael Iannozzi : What led you to get involved in language documentation?

Marie-Odile Junker : Noticing the lack of resources for teaching Canadian Aboriginal languages and also the fact that I “fell in love” with what I find beautifully intricate languages.

MI : How did you get involved specifically with the documentation of Algonquian languages?

MOJ : As an immigrant from France curious to learn the language(s) of this land, I realized you could learn all kinds of immigrant languages, but not aboriginal languages. In Ottawa, the original language would have been an Algonquian language.

MI : Which languages form the Algonquian family? Where are they spoken?

MOJ : It is one of the largest families in North America, in terms of territory covered, if not in number of speakers. The Cree-Innu dialects and the Ojibwe dialects form the Central Algonquian languages, while languages like Mi’kmaq and Malisset make up the Eastern Algonquian languages

MI : What is the general health of the Algonquian languages?

MOJ : It depends on the community and the place, some have lost their language, some still pass it on to their children, but most are endangered.

MI : Your research focusses a lot on the use of modern technologies for the purposes of language documentation and revitalization; what role do you feel technology has to play in the survival of these languages?

MOJ : Technology and the internet play a role in the development of a collective intelligence in a manner unprecedented in the past. If some languages are not represented and used in the digital age, if they do not infuse the communication technologies available, and if their speakers have to abandon them in order to communicate with each other, those languages will not be part of the development of this collective intelligence and that is a loss for humanity as a whole. [By collective intelligence, Professor Junker refers to the idea of the information that is available to society as a whole. What was once specialized knowledge, or only available to a certain group is now available to society collectively through modern technologies]

MI : Do you feel that technology age has been helpful or harmful to the future of Indigenous languages?

MOJ : Time will tell, probably both. This is like asking if the snowmobile has been helpful or harmful for hunting, or if the cellphone has been helpful or harmful to communication between human beings…

MI : What resources did you draw upon to decide how to begin your language documentation? Were there previous successes with other languages that informed how you approached your efforts?

MOJ : I did not have models in my field; I used an approach called Participatory Action Research, which was pioneered in areas like International Development, and asked myself how to apply it to Linguistics. With PAR, you focus on the research process, so I asked myself: how do I make my intervention as a linguist in a community something that would benefit and empower the speakers with what they wish for their language? Do they feel valued? Do they appreciate their language after working with me? [Although the term “Participatory Action Research” may sound complex, the following response is a great illustration of how this works in practice]

MI : Turning now to the large project of the Algonquian Linguistic Atlas, how did you decide to make this project?

MOJ : It came little by little, a side project that grew out of speakers’ interest. That is how Participatory Action Research works. In 2002, I made a Conversation CD with 21 topics of conversation for East Cree, as a side project to more fully engage the interest of young Cree speakers who I had hired on a summer project to work on a database of Cree verb conjugations. I was worried that they would not see the end of the Verb documentation project (it took 15 more years to complete!). This CD went viral and soon other groups asked me for permission to adapt it to their dialect.

The turning point was after giving a guest talk and a workshop at an aboriginal conference in Prince Albert, in 2004… I was being driven back by two Cree women who had attended my documentation/sound recording workshop (where we were recording common words and phrases of their many dialects), and they were asking me to give them a copy of the map of the Cree-Innu language family I had shown them. They had never understood that they were part of a language family that stretched all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. So it just occurred to me: sounds+map; let’s put it all together! I would like to give credit to those two women for that magical moment.

We made a prototype, then funding came, and Google maps became available the same year (2005). At first it was only Cree-Innu, but 3 or 4 years later we had requests from other languages and dialects. We grew to include them and so on.

MI : What were the obstacles and challenges of putting together such a large project, with so many people involved?

MOJ : Some technical challenges: having to reprogram sustainably (run on cheap servers), having to adapt to contributors’ technical preferences and expertise. We have experienced lots of good will. Some people or groups keep contacting me to join in. It usually just takes a willing person to work with us. They want to be represented there. It is open-access and collaborative, so contributors can do what they wish with their material afterwards.

MI : How did the communities involved feel about your efforts, and how do they feel now that they can see the finished product?

MOJ : In general they love it, they feel proud to be represented and they enjoy listening to their cousins and neighbours. More recently, the production of mobile versions (apps) is extremely popular. We had over 1120 downloads of the East Cree conversation app on iOS alone.

MI : How can a language community promote, document, or revitalize their language through technology?

MOJ : I think the answer depends on the situation. It is like asking how to promote housing with power tools. I think it is really important to think of technology as a tool, not an end in itself, and of speakers as users (or not), otherwise we will end up with machines that talk or write dead languages. [The power tools analogy might at first seem odd, but it is a perfect way of illustrating the key issue of documentation. You can have the best tools—the newest and most advanced technology—but it isn’t the technology that saves a language. It is the people who use the tools]

MI : In the past, the role of a documentary linguist was to go in the field and record or transcribe speech; how have the internet and modern devices changed that?

MOJ : With the internet, we now see the possibility of crowd sourcing (which is NOT what we are doing in the linguistic atlas). The problem might soon be the availability of too much unstructured, unedited data.

The change for me was both in the technology and in the approach. Someone can still go in the field, but use videos instead of pencils to record speech and archive those videos in libraries and depositories, with the speakers being left out of the equation. The use of a Participatory Action Research framework together with the technology is what created the atlas.

MI : What is the role of a documentary linguist today?

MOJ : Considering the crisis we are facing, with languages disappearing as fast as biodiversity, their role is in its title: “document”, but also help preserve, if not for the current heirs, for the future generations. I would also add “infuse life” in those languages, by working WITH speakers who wish it to survive. Not all wish that, we see alternating generation patterns. For example, there are cases of language reclamation like Sami in Scandinavia, with bilingual grandparents, parents who did not speak the language at all or became second-language speakers of it, and now first-language bilingual grandchildren.

MI : What do you think will be the role of a documentary linguist in the future?

MOJ : I am not sure, but I suspect they will still be very busy, unless there is nothing left to document.

MI : What is your favourite part of your work?

MOJ : Connecting (with) people, facilitating the sharing of resources, doing linguistic analysis, marvelling at linguistic diversity, hearing people speak in their diverse beautiful languages…

MI : What has been the most important thing you’ve learned through working with Indigenous languages and communities?

MOJ : Nothing ever happens as planned, but something interesting eventually happens.

MI : What would you like to do next, or where would you like to see the Atlas project headed next?

MOJ : We got funding for 5 years to develop a digital infrastructure for Algonquian languages, especially dictionaries. I see the Atlas becoming a portal for those languages’ resources, still with the initial intent of allowing groups not to reinvent the wheel, but also to share educational resources, or anything that is needed to keep their language alive, and let it stay alive with modern communication.

[These are the languages represented. Even those spoken by very few, such as Michif, are a part of this Atlas]

[The Atlas’ languages. Even those spoken by very few, such as Michif, are a part of this Atlas]

A huge thank you to Professor Junker for speaking with me about her great work.

Documenting languages is a huge amount of work. Though technology can help spread information quickly and over great distances, without people to use it, you have a ‘tree falling in the forest’ situation. Thanks to open-source data and increasingly user-friendly software, sharing information with people across the globe is easier than ever.

The goal and success in documenting and preserving a language is that, even if the community doesn’t need those resources today, we, as a society, leave for future generations the tools to reawaken their languages.

So check out Prof. Junker’s Algonquian Language Atlas, and maybe you’ll feel inspired to start a project of your own!

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

They Are Standing the Words Back Up

This week I spoke with someone from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, which is the community that is the subject of Raising the Words; a short documentary from Chloë Ellingson.

Callie Hill is the Executive Director of the Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna Language and Cultural Centre, and she has a great deal of experience engaging with, and organizing the education of the Mohawk language. As a Mohawk herself, she also relates personally to the significance of losing the Mohawk language.

I spoke with her both about the language and how to save a language that needs our help.

[Callie in her office]

[Callie in her Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna office]

Michael Iannozzi : What led you to get involved in revitalizing the Mohawk language?

Callie Hill : I think that having children was one of the defining moments in my life that made me realize how important the Mohawk language and culture is. And now I have a grandson so it is even more important to me. I am not a speaker, but I do have a base of language knowledge which I have gained from years of taking language programs. I hope to be able to continue learning the language so that I can pass this along to my grandchildren. My parents did not speak, but I did hear my paternal grandfather speak the language, which I don’t recall knowing was indeed Mohawk. He died when I was nine and he was the only person in my family that I ever heard speaking the language.

In 2004, I began to work for Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna (TTO) as the Coordinator. At the time that I joined I was the only full-time employee. My role for the past ten years has been to create, develop and oversee Mohawk language programs in the community, which I have been doing as a non-speaker. By this I mean that I have been the Administrator of the programs, and never a teacher of the language. We now have a staff complement of six teachers, one teacher assistant, a part-time curriculum specialist, an Administrative Assistant and myself, the Executive Director.

MI :What does a typical day consist of in your work?

CH : As the Executive Director of the TTO Language and Cultural Centre, my typical day is administrative work. I write proposals, prepare reporting, oversee the staff and work on new programming. Because my office is at the primary immersion school I also act in the position of “Principal”, so some of my time is helping the teachers in this capacity. So really I don’t have a typical day because you just never know what can happen. We all very much work as a team in every aspect of our organization. Everyone is willing to pitch in and help where they can: being a community, that is what we are all about. For instance, the primary school had a Valentine cookie fundraiser in February and collectively in one day we raised $800, by baking and selling a total of 800 cookies at $1 each – that was a great success!

MI : Where do your revitalization efforts take place?

CH : Kenhteke (Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory) is a Kanyenkehaka (Mohawk people) territory located in eastern Ontario between Belleville and Kingston. Our land is based along the shores of the Bay of Quinte, which is off of Lake Ontario. Historically, we relocated here in 1784 after being displaced from our homelands in Upper New York State in the Mohawk Valley. Our on-reserve population is around 2,200 people.

MI : How are you approaching the revival of the Mohawk language?

CH : Because we recognize the importance of inter-generational transmission of the language for it to thrive, we operate programs geared towards different age categories. We have three levels of educational programs: Totahne (At Gramma’s place) Language Nest, which opened in 2007, is a total immersion program for pre-schoolers; Kawenna’on:we (The First Words) Primary Immersion School, which opened in 2011, is for children from Senior Kindergarten to Gr 4; and the Shatiwennakaratats (They are standing the words back up) Adult Language Program, which started in 2004, is a full-time program for adults. The children’s programs are total immersion, and the adult program, while intense in nature, uses various methods to teach the language which includes not only speaking but reading and writing.

MI : Do you think your approach would work for others (or all) Mohawk communities?

CH : Almost all other Mohawk communities are using formal educational programs such as ours. However our biggest challenge is that we do not have any mother tongue speakers in our community and all of our programs are taught by teachers who have learned the language as an adult. We have one fluent grandmother that works at Totahne as we recognized the importance of having a fluent speaker in that program with the very young children, and we were fortunate at the time to find someone willing to relocate to Kenhteke. Totahne is very much just like spending a day with “gramma” or in our case “Tota”. We also bring in fluent speakers throughout the year in the adult program as it is important for our students to hear language in its most natural form. We network with the other Mohawk communities as we are all in the same situation of trying to ensure our language thrives in our communities.

MI : How did you decide to begin this language training and what resources did you draw upon?

CH : In 2002 TTO formulated a long-term strategic plan which laid the groundwork for the revitalization efforts in the community; the plan was to teach the adults to speak—teach them to be teachers of the language, so that we could begin an immersion school for children. We have since met these goals through various ways and means. So now we continue to build upon this framework. The organization continues to hold strategic planning sessions each year.

MI : Why do you think the language has reached the point where it needs a revival?

CH : People quit speaking the language in our community for various reasons but in my opinion they all point back to colonization. In particular I am speaking of the influence of the Church through the missionaries and the Indian Act. I believe these to be the over-arching reasons which led to parents choosing not to speak Mohawk to their children, and once the intergenerational transmission in the homes was interrupted, it lead to the demise of the language in our community. By my estimation we have not had a generation of mother-tongue speakers who used the Mohawk language in daily life since the late 1800’s.

MI : How does the community feel about your efforts, and how did they feel when you started?

CH : When TTO organized in the late 1990’s there were mixed emotions about revitalization efforts. There was a group of supporters who were very committed to the efforts, and there were also some older people who thought it better left alone, basically to die. I believe the community is supportive of our efforts today. We see support in many ways throughout the community: road signs in the language, people naming their children with only a Mohawk name, people in all our service organizations answering the phones with “She:kon!” (translated in that context as “hello!”), gravestones with Mohawk names engraved on them, the financial support of our local politicians. So I see this as support in many different capacities.

MI : What has been the biggest challenge in revitalizing the Mohawk language?

CH : Funding of programs is an ongoing challenge and we are grateful to our local government, the Tyendinaga Mohawk Council, who have been very supportive financially. Also in this modern world we live in, I don’t believe people realize how colonized they are – some don’t see any point in learning the language in this materialistic, economy driven world we live in.

MI : What do you think is the chance of success for the Mohawk language revitalization project?

CH : I have to say that I have total confidence in our efforts to revitalize our language. There is no other acceptable answer in my opinion. I think it is necessary for us to continue to educate the people in our community, and I see through providing education and awareness the efforts will continue to grow.

MI : What do you feel is a key factor for the revitalization’s success?

CH : I think a key factor is the commitment shown by everyone in the process. From those of us doing the administrative work to the people who are enrolled in our programs and the parents who put their trust in us to educate their children, we all have a vitally important role to play in our efforts.

MI : What is your favourite part of your work?

CH : This work is my life’s passion. I could not see me doing anything other than what I do. I get so much satisfaction when I hear anyone speaking the language, from the children to the adults. I am grateful for the opportunity to be working so closely to something that is so important not only to me, but to many people in my family and my community.

MI : How have the youth, adults, and elders reacted to your efforts?

CH : There is a group of people who I credit for the original push for language and cultural opportunities in the community back 10-15 years ago. These people are now in their 30’s and they are the ones who are raising their children with language and culture. For the past few years there seems to be another group of young people who are very interested in learning the language and culture. This is very exciting for us. I think it is critically important that young people gain this knowledge prior to having children in hopes that they will raise their children in our language and our ways. Our language is not safe until we have a complete generation of speakers, and ideally this will be children who continue the process by teaching and speaking to their children.

MI : What has been the most important thing you’ve learned through this project?

CH : I have learned that nothing good is easy! I think my mother used to say that! We have had our struggles along the way, but the satisfaction of hearing the language being spoken by children or hearing it at the store is so satisfying. We have come from a community of virtually no speakers to one where language can be heard in many contexts. We are now able to conduct our ceremonies at our longhouse totally in the Mohawk language. It can sometimes feel as if we are making no progress so in those times it is important to reflect on where we were ten years ago compared to where we are today. It is nothing short of amazing, and it is the combined efforts of every person in the community who has made the revitalization of language a priority in his/her life.

MI : What would you like to do next, or where you like to see the revitalization projects head next?

CH : I am currently working on my Masters in Indigenous Language Revitalization through the University of Victoria. My project has been a community wide survey on the health, status and vitality of the language, and I am hopeful that I will be able to use some of what I have learned through that process to create more opportunities for people in our community in terms of revitalizing and regenerating our language and culture.

[A classroom of children learning the Mohawk language in Tyendinaga]

[A classroom of children learning the Mohawk language in Tyendinaga]

Callie hits on many points that are an essential part of the revitalization of any language. Perhaps most importantly that it isn’t easy! This project was started by a dedicated and small group who refused to allow their ancestral language to disappear. For them, it was worth their time and effort to save, and they worked very hard to reach that goal. As Callie says, if there is a committed group of people willing to work toward preserving and revitalizing the language then the language will be saved. Callie has no doubts that Mohawk will be saved, and with people like her working toward saving languages, I have no doubts either.

She also mentions that in the “materialistic, economy-driven” society that we far too often embrace there are those who might not value this kind of work. Some people see Mohawk, and any other language, as a means to an end—of gaining employment or economic gains. But to me this feels wrong. People don’t only learn (and shouldn’t only learn) a language because it is economically valuable. Language learners should be able to see the social and personal value of their language. The Mohawk language has significant cultural value for the people whose ancestors spoke it. This is a tremendous benefit that can’t easily be measured.

Thank you to Callie for her time for this interview. Her work is invaluable to the fabric of the story of us as Ontarians, Canadians, and ultimately as human beings.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

You Knew Just What to Say

This week we’re looking into the realm of social linguistics, or sociolinguistics. Specifically, “register” and “turn taking”. Imagine you are in an elevator and the person next to you is in track pants and an old t-shirt, she has her hair in a loose bun, and she is talking about her “wild night” on the phone. She hangs up and she begins to speak with you. How would you speak with that person? What would you talk about, and what would you avoid talking about? How would what you talked about, and how you spoke change if she got another call, and her “wild night” had been at a hospital, and you realized she was an ER doctor?

Professor Maite Taboada from Simon Fraser University is going to explain what goes on in our heads when we navigate what to say to people we meet, and how we should say it. What Professor Taboada studies is essentially this: why and how people know what to say in a conversation. This could be a conversation removed from the other speaker(s) like in an email, or text message; however, it could also be one happening in-person and “live”.

I find it fascinating how people (hopefully myself included) know what to share when, and are quickly able to phrase it to make a conversation go smoothly.

I’ll let Professor Taboada explain why she’s so fascinated as well.

[My sister is a master conversationalist]

[My sister is a master conversationalist…and laugher]

Michael Iannozzi : First of all, what is discourse? And what is register?

Maite Taboada : These are two big questions. In linguistics in general, we think of discourse as language in context. That tends to mean that it anything bigger than a sentence. Other areas of linguistics focus on sound, words and their structure, sentence structure, and meaning. You could say that discourse starts where the other disciplines stop, because discourse focuses on how the structure and meaning of sentences make sense in the context where they are used.

Register ties in with the notion of context. As speakers, we all know that certain things are more appropriate or successful in one context than another. We also know that certain interactions take place in chunks or steps. That knowledge is knowledge of register. For instance, we know that conversations usually have a series of greetings as openings, and a series of turns as closings. Those are steps in the conversation. We also know that you can write “U” for “you” in a text message, but that you probably shouldn’t do that in a letter of application for a job. Register, then, is that complex relationship of language, the purpose of our language exchanges, and the context of situation in which those exchanges take place.

MI : In a conversation, who decides the appropriate register?

MT : Nobody really decides. Speakers adjust to the appropriate register based on the reason for coming together and talking, and based on their previous knowledge of similar situations.

MI : How does the register and discourse style used between two speakers change as they come to know one another better?

MT : There are often subtle changes over time, and also in the course of a single conversation, that have to do with establishing common ground, and also with gaining familiarity with each other. Researchers in sociology have also studied the process of accommodation, whereby conversation participants start adopting each other’s terms, structures and even pronunciations, sort of settling on a common way of saying things.

MI : Do people tend to have a personal “baseline” or “default” register or discourse style?

MT : No, register changes with the context. Think of all the situations you go through in the course of a day. Getting on public transit, purchasing goods, greeting colleagues or fellow students at the beginning of the day, work meetings, classroom interactions, meetings with friends, sports and cultural activities… Whenever you use language in those daily experiences you are employing a different register. And I have only mentioned spoken interactions. Every email, memo, assignment, letter or text you write is part of a different register as well. In each of those cases, you know roughly what steps are needed to accomplish the action, and what language is most appropriate.

MI : How are people perceived who use what the other considers to be the incorrect or unsuitable register for a given conversation?

MT : There is an obvious breakdown of communication, or at least a feeling of something not being quite right. Think of the person who boos during a speech, or the professor who rambles during a lecture. The participants feel that the behaviour is not fulfilling the purposes of the interaction.

This is more obvious with children. Part of the process of learning language in childhood has to do with learning the appropriate registers, and the steps to go through in a conversation. That is why we insist children ask for things properly, that they say goodbye, and that they address people in certain ways. We are teaching them the right steps and the right language.

MI : What is turn taking?

MT : Turn taking is the process of negotiating who is speaking at any given time. Researchers have studied turn taking for a long time, and there is a set of very simple rules that describe the process. Basically, at certain points in the speech (places where a unit of communication, usually a sentence, is finished), there are three options: the current speaker may continue; the current speaker may select the next speaker; or another speaker may self-select. The rules are deceptively simple, because the really tricky thing is how the intention to continue talking or to self-select is indicated. We often signal the intention to continue talking with “uhm” and “uh”, which sort of buy us time to formulate the next thought. We can also raise our hand, as if to say “I’m not done yet”. Other speakers may start speaking, thus interrupting, or raise their hand, or otherwise use facial and body language to indicate the desire to speak. The range of signals is quite wide, and changes from culture to culture, but we somehow learn to negotiate it.

In some contexts, of course, turn taking is heavily regulated. Think of Parliament, where the Speaker (funny term, because they don’t speak that much!) assigns turns. Or a classroom setting, where the instructor usually asks that students raise their hands, and points to the person who is supposed to speak next.

By the way, the expressions “taking the floor” and “holding the floor” [both used in studying turn taking] have their origin in parliamentary settings, where the person who wanted to speak had to come to the floor in the middle of parliament.

MI : Do gender differences play a role in the decision of register and topics? Do people of different genders approach turn taking differently?

MT : There are heaps of research on gender differences in speech. My own conclusion is that there is no simple answer to this question, and you will find research that equally proves that women interrupt more often and that men interrupt more often. It really depends on the context, and I do think that there are gender differences in how women behave at work meetings, for instance, as opposed to casual conversation. But I don’t think you can issue blanket statements like “women speak more” or “men interrupt more”.

MI : How do you collect speech of different registers in a scientific way?

MT : Data collection is an important part of the research process when you are dealing with naturally-occurring data. If we want to focus on a specific register, the best approach is to recruit people and have them speak in the particular context in which we think the register occurs.

For instance, right now one of the PhD students, Emma Mileva, is investigating the language of alternative therapy medicine. She has approached a number of practitioners, and in cases where the practitioner approves, it is also difficult to persuade the patients to allow recording to take place. She has managed, however, to collect some data and is finding interesting phenomena. Her hypothesis is that alternative therapy interactions sit somewhere between traditional medical interviews and psychotherapy sessions, in terms of the language and power relations that they exhibit.

MI : Where do you hope to take your research next?

MT : I have actually left spoken language aside for now, and I am concentrating on written language. In the last few years, I have been interested in the language of evaluation: how we express opinions, and how we intensify or mitigate them. One current concern is to measure the impact of context on words conveying evaluation. Take, for instance, the word “great”. On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 indicates negative, and 5 very positive, I could say that “great” is maybe a 4, that is, a word that is quite positive. Now, what I want to know is what happens when you say “It could be great”. Something has changed, right? “Great” is not a 4 any longer. A similar change happens in constructing negative sentences, “It isn’t great”; or verbs expressing beliefs, such as “I believe it’s great”; or conditionals “It’s great if all you want is a quick read” (when describing a book).

In my most recent project, I built a software system that takes reviews of movies, books and consumer products and extracts evaluation from them, assigning a numerical value to the review, the same way that reviewers assign stars to their reviews online. What we found is that we could reliably predict evaluation and opinion in most cases, but that the examples I mentioned above [maybes and negative phrases] made the task much more difficult.

This is fascinating research into how we express our opinions, and how that happens online. So far, I have worked with long-ish texts, such as reviews, but a big area to tackle is micro-blogging, such as Facebook comments or tweets. At the other end of the spectrum, I am also investigating formal writing, such as newspaper editorials. I am looking forward to situating all those different types of language, and capturing how evaluation is expressed in each case.

MI : What has been your favourite part of your research so far?

MT : All of it is fun! I get to study what I think is our most human trait, the fact that we speak and use language to communicate. It is quite remarkable that we use language every day, yet most of us are unaware of its inner workings and all the possibilities it offers.

———————————————————————————————————————————–

A sincere thank you to Maite Taboada from Simon Fraser University for speaking to me about this area of linguistic research.

We use language, as Prof. Taboada said, almost constantly throughout each and every day. That can make it easy to forget the brain power that goes into not just formulating thoughts and expressing them, but also into knowing how to express those thoughts to fit the context or social situation you find yourself in.

We’ve all had situations where we’ve felt we were “on a different wavelength” from the person with whom we were speaking, or that they were perhaps sharing TMI (Too Much Information). A lot of that comes down to having a different understanding of the context, and therefore register, best suited for a given conversation.

Knowing how to employ the right register in a situation can avoid an awkward conversation, and if Professor Taboada’s research can help avoid awkwardness, then it is surely worthwhile.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

Capturing a Language on Film

Chloë Ellingson is a documentarian and photographer. Her work has appeared in Newspapers, for events, and she recently discussed a project on Radio Q.

Her most recent work has involved the study of a revitalization effort being conducted on the Mohawk language by the people of Tyendinaga. She created a thoughtful documentary which reflects upon the importance of a language for a people, how a language can be saved, and what kind of people it takes to make it work.

I was able to ask Chloë about her new film. The documentary is called Raising the Words (This comes from the name for the two-year adult-immersion program, Shatiwennakarà:tats, which translates in English as “they are raising the words again”).

[Still from Chloë's Documentary Raising the Words]

[Photo from Chloë’s Documentary Raising the Words]

Michael Iannozzi : What led you to study the Mohawk language revitalization project?

Chloë Ellingson : I first became aware of the Mohawk language [known as Kanien’keha in Mohawk] revitalization in Tyendinaga through my relationship with two people who ended up studying Mohawk – Margaret and Ellie. I met them in 2011 for a photographic project I was working on about grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. I was studying photojournalism at Loyalist College at the time, which is in nearby Belleville, Ontario. Margaret and Ellie were really excited about the language programs, and talked often about what they were learning.

It took about a year for me to commit to the idea of working on this project, as I had sincere reservations about taking on a subject that was so removed from my own life experiences. Ultimately, I realized that hearing about what was happening in Tyendinaga was having a powerful impact on my perception of Canada, the depth of the imprint of colonialism, and also what it means to speak a language more broadly. At a certain point I felt that these realizations were too important not to share, and I had met people who were willing to share their stories with me. I started shooting this film in August, 2013.

MI : Where does the film take place?

CE : The documentary is called Raising the Words. It takes place in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, which is about 200km east of Toronto along Highway 401. Tyendinaga is home to roughly 2200 people, however there are many more people who are also Bay of Quinte Mohawks, but live elsewhere. It is one of the six Mohawk territories within Canadian borders.

MI : Had you spent much time in small towns before filming this documentary?

CE : Other than the short time I had been living in Belleville? Absolutely not! I had spent my life living in only big cities up to that point. All the open space and a dependence on a car was quite an adjustment for me.

MI : Going into the project, how much did you already know about the Indigenous languages of Canada? And specifically of Mohawk?

CE : I knew nothing about Indigenous languages in Canada, and certainly nothing about what was being done to revive them. I had no sense of how Mohawk related to other Indigenous languages, where people spoke it, or what it meant to communities of Mohawk people – and this is what got me into the project. It wasn’t an interest in the language itself, but an interest in what the language means to people. The more I learned about the value it held, the more my curiosity grew.

The life experiences of the people I’ve spoken to in the film have illustrated that language is about much more than communication. It’s a connection to culture, to ancestry, to self. Some of the people in the film see learning the language as a political act, and as an essential part of connecting with their Mohawk identity.

MI : Did you experience any challenges in filming this project?

CE : I experience challenges constantly. Some of the challenges are about figuring out how to piece this film together as a first-time filmmaker. I’m used to working with the medium of photography, and there are some huge differences to grapple with, such as the need to plan and do things in a pre-meditated fashion, rather than being able to have a more intuitive approach. There are more profound challenges as well, like the need to try to work away from the exoticized, distancing representations of Indigenous peoples that have plagued visual representations of the past, and continue to do so. This is a haunting challenge because I fear that the prejudices I’ve been surrounded by throughout my life could be coming out in in ways I’m not aware of.

MI : The people who form the basis of the film, what has been their reaction to beginning to learn the Mohawk language? Why is it important to them?

CE : From what I gather there are several motivations, but the overarching one is something I can’t describe, that I’ve only been able to vaguely bear witness to, and it has to do with addressing a profound need to feel like oneself after a tremendous, violent loss. I know that there are sub-motivations at play such as wanting their children to have access to opportunities they never did, to connect with culture, to live out the change they want experienced in the community on a broad scale.Important to note is also “the cool factor” that the language has now, as teacher Nathan Thanyehténhas Brinklow puts it. As he says in the film, the kids of ‘80s and ‘90s “grew up post-dramatic racism, post native-awakening, at a time where it started again to be cool to be native.” It’s this generation, he says, that has been raised in a context that allows for language revitalization.

MI : What has been the hardest part of putting this together?

CE : The hardest part is grappling with the fact that I talk, write, and think about this project in English. I think the work has value even coming from this standpoint, but it’s strange not to be contributing to the revitalization through what the film is, rather than just what it says.

MI : What has been the biggest surprise, or new thing that’s come from your work on this?

CE : It’s been surprising to me to hear some of the thoughts about my project from people I know who I otherwise consider to be very open-minded, curious and worldly people. One friend asked, after hearing about the work, something like, “But isn’t it normal for languages to die out through the course of history?” I’ve come to believe that this is totally missing the point. There are real people who care about their language and are fighting to keep it strong. Why entertain notions of whether or not it matters on the scale of total human history if it clearly matters to a people today?

MI : Who is this project aimed at? Who do you hope will be the audience for this film?

CE : I find this question very difficult to answer, because I’ll be happy for anyone to watch the film, and I can’t predict who will get something out of it and who won’t. That said, if the standpoint from which it was made can be an indication of the answer to your question, then I’ll say that this film came about through a realization that language revitalization is happening. It has tremendous value to those involved. Learning about these efforts at revitalization is a window into exploring the current impact of colonialism, and a desire to explore and share the life-affirming and moving stories of a few people who are involved in language revitalization in Tyendinaga.

[Still from Chloe's film Raising the Words]

[Photo from Chloë’s film Raising the Words]

A sincere thank you to Chloë for taking part in this interview. This blog has usually focussed on the work of academics and researchers, but it is important to speak also with people involved in language in other ways.

The Mohawk language is absolutely important to the people in Tyendinaga who are the subjects of Chloë’s film. They are spending their time and resources to try to revive their language, and to help people appreciate the importance that language has to Mohawk identity–both inside and beyond their community.

These languages aren’t endangered like a species that isn’t surviving due to natural selection. There has been nothing natural about the suppression that Indigenous languages have underwent that created a situation in which so many are now on the edge of extinction.

Efforts like those taking place in Tyendinaga hope to restore a language’s place in its community, and efforts like Chloë’s hope to inform those involved, and the public at large, that these languages can be saved, but they need our help.

 

Information on how and where to see Chloë’s documentary can be found Here.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi