I’ve been thinking about issues related to teaching Cree in the classroom lately, and I thought I’d throw some of those up here. I know other people are in the same boat, and other people are also trying to figure out these puzzles. Maybe some of these ideas will help them, or maybe they’ll have ideas to help me!
(Quick note: ‘L2′ is the linguistic short-cut for ‘second language.’ So an ‘L2 learner’ would be someone who learns Cree as a ‘second language.’)
First, some facts about Cree’s situation.
- Today, the average age of a first-language speaker of Cree in western Canada is probably hovering right around 55. I think it’s older in the far West and younger in Manitoba (maybe as young as an average age of 30). This means that the language has missed 1-3 generations and is officially ‘moribund.’ If nothing changes, the Cree languages will die along with their speakers.
- Due to social and health issues, a huge percentage of modern Cree young people never get even incidental exposure to Cree.
- There are very few – if any – places and times that a person can speak Cree in their daily life.
- Like it or not the vast majority of Cree people who want to learn the language will be exposed to it primarily in the school system. As adults or young adults.
- This new method of trying to learn Cree is not how anybody learned the language for the last – oh – 10,000 years. Meaning that we are going to have to do something new and different if we want the language to survive another generation.
- People who currently speak the language fluently did not learn it this way. They learned the language as children, purely by context, natural intuition, and steady interaction with speakers.
- If we measure a language program’s success by its ability to produce fluent speakers, the current Cree-language educational system is, by and large, a complete failure.
Now, some facts about language learning for adults/young adults.
- Adults and young adults have already learned a language (their ‘L1′). They are thus different from children learning a language for the first time, because they already have a language system in their heads.
- Adults and young adults generally desire some kind of ‘system’ or set of rules to help them structure their learning activities. Worse, they bring a set of rules to the learning environment already – the rules of their first language. Even if they don’t know what these rules are consciously, they’re going to apply them unconsciously.
- Adults do not ever tolerate other adults producing language at the level that toddlers do. Meaning that adults and young adults are not allowed to babble, produce half words, broken sentences, and incoherent stretches of speech like children are. Meaning that the pressures on an adult learner of a language are quite different than they are on a child.
- Currently, the vast majority of English-speaking learners of French, German, Spanish, etc, learn these languages in the school system.
- When combined with time in the language environment (e.g. time spent in Quebec or Germany), classroom learners routinely achieve complete fluency in the language of their choice.
Measured in terms of outcomes, the difference between Cree language programs and, say, Spanish language programs are like night and day. On the one hand, we have a huge number of programs that fail to turn out any students who can even say “Hello, my name is___” in the language after 3-4 courses, and on the other we have a system that regularly produces fully fluent speakers all across the continent.
I think there are several reasons for these significantly different outcomes, but the two reasons that are most striking are WHO is teaching the classes and HOW they are teaching them.
As an undergraduate, I took a whole boatload of language classes at the University level. German, Icelandic, Greek, and Latin. German alone I took for 4+ years, and was able to gain enough fluency to travel to Germany, navigate everything by myself, watch German movies, read German books, etc.
Based on the 8 German classes alone, I am convinced that the methods for teaching German differ drastically from the methods for teaching Cree. So much so, that I don’t even think the programs are even doing the same things at this point.
When you start German at the University, you almost never start with a first-language speaker. I did not see a teacher whose first language was German until my fifth class. That’s after two full years (12 credits) of German. Yes, really.
And you know what? My first native German-language teacher was terrible. He made us talk and then mocked our accents. He patronized us. “How are we be having of this much trouble with the German?” he would smirk. “It is an einfach language, people. Come on. Learn it easily!” That is, having never been in our shoes, he lacked understanding and empathy for our situation as L2 learners. He was so bad, in fact, that I dropped the class and went the lit route instead. Which is to say, I never had a chance to develop my conversation skills, spending all my time reading Kafka and Goethe instead. I didn’t have another native speaker of German until my second-to-last German class. She was excellent, but the pained look on her face when we talked never left most of us. Most students refused to speak in her presence, too.
Setting aside the particularly nasty attitude this first faculty member had (a general German problem in the language-teaching environment, and something not common in the Cree world), the issue remains. The fact is, someone who never had to learn the language as an adult in a classroom has a very hard time understanding what the challenges are for someone who is trying to.
I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. I think it’s a bad idea to start new adult learners of Cree with a native speaker for a teacher. The Cree speaker who has lived the language since they were a child, no matter how pêyâhtik they speak, no matter how kitimâkisiw they are, will never be able to completely understand what Cree is like to a new adult learner. As such, they don’t know where to start with teaching. What will be hard for an English-speaking learner of Cree? They don’t know. They were never an English-speaking learner of Cree.
Worse, because there is such a strong weight on the cultural value of the language, making mistakes in front of an elder can be extremely upsetting for a learner. It’s embarrassing – shameful even – to know so little. Even if the elder is patient (and many are), the student learner is typically pretty frightened.
The best teacher for an EARLY learner is a fellow learner. Someone who has been there, suffered themselves. There’s no shame, in front of someone like that, of making mistakes. The teacher themselves has made those exact mistakes. At the same time, if the teacher is themselves fluent or near-fluent, they can serve as an encouraging role-model for the students. See? It’s learnable. See? Someone has been there and done that. This can’t be that hard.
This is not to say that fluent, first-language speakers shouldn’t be teaching Cree. Far from it – they are really the only people who should teach the upper-level classes. Once the student is near-fluent, the first-language speaker is the perfect person to take them the rest of the way, to push them to get over that last hump. This is why all the highest level language classes at the University are usually taught by L1 speakers. This is true of most German-language classes for sure, but I have seen the same model applied in many other languages as well. You start with an L2 learner who used to be where you are now, and then you graduate to the ‘real’ language as spoken by someone who knows it like they know their own arms and legs.
I think ‘how’ is where Cree teaching needs to diverge somewhat from the teaching of many European languages. See, European languages that are commonly taught, like Spanish, French, and German, all are pretty similar to English (from a world perspective). This means that the vast majority of the system that English speakers already know can be just imported wholesale to these new languages. Word order does very similar things. The morphology they have to learn is very similar in terms of its function and ordering. The kinds of meanings that morphemes give are systematically related. In many cases, the words themselves are related (although this can cause other problems – for example, German ‘will’ and English ‘will’ are historically related, but now mean quite different things). English has case (on its pronouns), so do these other languages. It’s more of a question of learning more elaborate rules in some places, or less rules in others. Essentially, a ‘fine-tuning’ of the learner’s conception of what languages can do.
The result of this similarity is that language teachers don’t feel that they have to teach too much linguistics. That is, they don’t need to dive too deep into the structure of language and the more abstract, underlying logics of how languages work.
Cree, on the other hand, does not require a ‘fine-tuning’ for the learner. It requires quite a bit of scrapping. Throw out a lot of what you think “all” languages do. It’s time to Think Big. This is because:
Cree is about as different from English as two languages can possibly be from each other.
I’m serious. Of all the languages I have seen, learned, and all the grammatical descriptions I’ve read, there are almost no languages that are more different from English than Cree is. Other languages in Algonquian, the Caucasian languages, some in Australia, South America, and New Guinea – that’s about it. Mandarin, Russian, Yorùbá, Dakota, Basque, Turkish, Japanese, Arabic – they’re all more familiar to an English speaker than Algonquian will be. This means No major language taught at a University or High School anywhere in North America will be a comparable challenge to an English-speaking learner.
This means that an English-speaking learner of Cree is going to have to do the Yoda thing, and “Unlearn what they have learned.” Almost NO rule they intuitively know about English will be directly applicable to Cree. Rules, then, become the center of the whole issue.
How do you do this? Well, so far, the approach has mostly been to throw up the hands and say “The language doesn’t have rules” or “We have no idea what the rules are.” Sometimes, teachers will try to come up with some rules, but they’re not doing this with linguistic training, so they generally have a very impoverished idea of what a language rule COULD be. This means that the rules students get are either grossly inaccurate at best or most often simply non-existent.
At the same time, I think people with linguistics training often put too little faith in the potential value of the abstract concepts underlying Cree for the learner. Rather than actually construct teaching materials based on what they really do know about the way Cree works, they often try to water it down, simplify it, or otherwise bludgeon it for the learner. I understand the reasons for this, of course – it’s hard enough to get them to pay attention, without hitting them with the ‘truth’ about Cree.
However, if we don’t give them the ‘truth’ about Cree, we’re never going to get them fluent. And the irony of ironies is that Cree is actually beautifully, elegantly systematic. It is systematic to an extreme. There are no irregular verbs, for example (cf. to Greek, where EVERY verb is irregular, basically). The problem isn’t LACK of rules. The problem is that the system wears its rules on its sleeve. And you will have to speak that way if you want to speak Cree.
A good example of these problems is with the way the verb system is taught. Preference is universally given for the independent order. This is because the teachers generally can say them in isolation, and because they share verbal morphology with nouns. Problem 1: It’s only used in 1/8 clauses in Cree. It’s a highly restricted verb form. Meaning that even if the student acquires it perfectly, they’ll sound like an idiot in less than 3 sentences. Problem 2: The particular system used in the independent order is exceptionally complex. So much so that teachers often refuse to teach the inverse system until – what – year 3? So, you end up being able to say “I see him” but not “he sees me.” This is baffling and demoralizing to the student. By contrast, the majority of the conjunct order is subject-marked, much like English or French or Spanish. Meaning that it is both more commonly used and more accessible to the rule system the student already has.
This is the benefit of linguistics to the teacher. Logical comparison of the language students speak with the language they are trying to learn helps to yield a teaching strategy.
I think the best way to teach Cree is actually to teach English. This is often done with the more challenging languages – Greek, for example. You need to learn how your language does it, and then you can learn how to transfer that (or flip it around) to Cree. For example, English does agents and patients with word order and some verbal changes. Cree weighs that almost all on the verb. Learn the concept of ‘agent’ and ‘patient’ and then learn how English does it. And then learn how Cree does it.
Weariness is of no concern
When I learned Greek at the University of Wisconsin, my first teacher (Victoria Pagan – Hi, Vicki!) made us write “When it comes to learning Greek, weariness is the least of my concerns” in the front of my big, fat grammar book. She made us all do it. It was a warning. This is going to be hard. It’s going to be challenging. Greek doesn’t care about your feelings. It doesn’t care if you don’t understand it.
Cree is the same. Cree, the language, does not care if you are tired, or if you’re discouraged. It doesn’t care if it’s hard or if it’s different from English. It’s like the north wind – it blows when you’re wearing warm clothes and blows when you’re not. Languages are natural things.
Every year, tons of students put themselves through the Greek meat grinder. Why? Because it’s the language of Plato, Aristotle, Homer. The Christian scriptures. Meaning, it’s a language that carries important content in it – content worth learning.
I would like Cree students to feel the same way about learning Cree. Especially for a Cree young person – the language carries so much in it. It’s the language of kâ-pimwêwêhahk. Of Sarah Whitecalf. It’s the language of Wîsahkêcâhk and the wîhtikowak. It’s the language of pêyâhtikowêwin and of a people whose primary contributions to the world were philosophical (much like the Greeks). It’s worth your effort.
Any L2 learner could tell you all that. They’ve had to climb that mountain already, and they can see the view. What I’m trying to get across here is that, having climbed the same path, they can help you find the right footholds. Given the fact that the survival Cree language is now often dependent on adults and young adults learning it in school, I think the future of Cree depends as much on L2 learners as it does on those who have spoken it since childhood.