Adventures in a New Language

Ni'n teluisi Janice. Tleyawi Elmastukwek, Ktaqmkuk.

For many years (nine to be exact), I have wanted to learn Mi'kmaq. Once I decided that my doctoral studies would focus on the music and culture of the Mi'kmaq, it seemed like a no-brainer. But finding a path to that end proved difficult. When I returned to Memorial University to begin my PhD, I was thrilled to find Mi'kmaw language courses listed in the calendar, but I was quickly disappointed — they had been inactive for years because there was no one available to teach them. I learned a few words related to my research along the way (like ji'kmaqn for a particular type of traditional rattle), but actually learning how to use these words in complete sentences seemed an impossible task.

I was thrilled, then, to find myself at Cape Breton University for postdoctoral studies. Not only were there language courses on the books here, but they had been offered in the recent past. I was hopeful that I would finally have the opportunity to learn the basic structure of the language, how to conjugate verbs, etc. Unfortunately, while other language courses were being offered at that time, the courses for non-speakers were not. I attended a few language classes while on research trips to Listuguj (Gaspé Peninsula) and learned a few phrases, but I was left wanting more.

After a brief return to the Rock, I learned I would be returning to Cape Breton University as the Senior Research Associate for the Purdy Crawford Chair in Aboriginal Business Studies. You can imagine that my first instinct was to search the online course offerings to see if I would finally have the chance to take Conversational Mi'kmaq for Non-Speakers I & II. Success! After some discussion regarding how best to proceed, I registered to audit the courses during Fall and Winter.

Obviously, it's not possible to become fluent in Mi'kmaq with only two terms of courses at a university, but when working inter-culturally, basics such as thank you, hello, and good bye can go a long way. The language provides a glimpse into Mi'kmaw worldview — it may interest many to know that in Mi'kmaq one doesn't say "good bye," but "I'll see you again" (nmu'ltes app). Following weekly spelling tests, I'm able to listen to a Mi'kmaw word and write it down with some accuracy — which greatly facilitates then finding its meaning in a dictionary! And, best of all, my ability to read Mi'kmaq and pronounce it aloud has improved significantly. I feel that I have gained much and I'm looking forward to reading a number of children's books this summer.

Am I capable of carrying on a conversation in Mi'kmaq? No, not really. Can I greet a Mi'kmaw person in their own language and introduce myself? Yes. I consider that a success. I may never become fluent, but I hope that by pursuing Mi'kmaq as a second language (well, technically it's the fourth for me), I have demonstrated respect for Mi'kmaw culture and a commitment to the revitalization of it. And I've no doubt that all I've learned in Conversational Mi'kmaq will make me a better researcher and collaborator in the future.

To my language teachers thus far: Wela'lioq.