I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how to go about constructing a university curriculum for Cree here at Brandon, and I thought I’d throw some of the issues up here. I’m sure they are familiar to most people, and I know a lot of people are struggling with the same things. Sometimes it’s encouraging to hear someone else struggling with the same thing, though.
I put this post together last summer, before teaching, and let it sit. I’ve been through another semester of it now, at a new university, and honestly I don’t see much to change in my list. It’s pretty much the same challenges wherever (and whoever) I seem to teach.
Before I talk about problems/challenges, though, I would like to say that I had a couple of students this last term who were truly excellent. Some of them were straight-out gifted learners and had all kinds of mad skills that they could bring to their aid, while others were just plain dogged and hung on with their fingernails. This was the case even though I actually chose to double (or triple?) the amount of content they would be getting, relative to other Cree classes (another post, I guess!). Instead of sinking/drowning, I had a number of students that excelled, and I have some (outside) hope that they’ll be able to get themselves to a decent competency in the language by the time their 12 credits is over here. Cross my fingers. So it’s not all doom and gloom ALL the time. Just when I haven’t had enough coffee.
Here’s the “Conceptual” issues I am wondering about.
- Cree is very hard for an English speaker to learn. It’s somewhere on the extreme end of language acquisition. Mandarin is easier. Japanese is certainly easier.
- The vast typological differences from English mean that it is necessary to bombard the student with a large number of new concepts all at once. OR you just teach them gimped Cree, which would only be suitable for talking to a dog (so long as it didn’t talk back).
- There is massive dialect variation, so that no matter how well a student learns whatever I teach them may still get nowhere in their home community.
- Writing has very little importance for functioning in a Cree context, but a very high importance for University curriculum.
I think these are mostly surmountable. I see nothing here that can’t be compensated for – or has already partially been fixed – in at least some Cree curriculum. In particular, I’m thinking of Ellis’ Cree curriculum, which marries linguistics and strong conversational examples quite well.
Here are the “Social” issues I am wondering about.
- Teaching aboriginal stuff at the university is highly politicized. Every step along the way, there are roadblocks, challenges, and in-fighting. I spend, on average, 10 minutes per class period having to either defend myself or defend the curriculum because somebody interrupted class to gripe. Some students estimate I spend 20 minutes.
- Universities are often unwilling to commit to the number of courses needed to get a student to competency (e.g. 6 courses for Japanese, which has gentler learning curve, VERY lucky if 4 for Cree. Most often, it’s 2. Or less. How much SPANISH do you learn in 1 semester of Spanish, people?! Now cut that by 1/4 or 1/8th.)
- Credit values for courses are kept low for Cree and other languages. Most language courses where I come from (UWisconsin) are 4-6 credits per term. The low Cree credits means we only get the student in the class 3 times a week, where 4-5 times is really more realistic.
- Universities generally expect language teaching results to be on the French/Spanish model. Meaning fairly quick results, with relative basic competency achieved in a short time. (Many universities do not even offer languages as ‘difficult’ as German.)
- Students who are interested in learning Cree at the University often do not possess strong “University Skills.” They have prolonged absences from class, do not do their assignments, skip tests, etc. I generally have 3-5 incompletes per term, per class of 20. My predecessor here for 15 years had about the same.
- Students often have very little or no support for being in the University, etc. A number of my students went home and told their families they were learning the language at the University. Some of these students were ridiculed and attacked. Several are currently not on speaking terms with some of their Cree-speaking family. I always tell them the same thing: “You tell your [family member] that them hearing their daughter/son try to speak this language is the best &(*%*&% thing they’ve ever heard in their ^%#$&$* life, and they should be thankful that their child wants to build a connection to their culture and their identity.”
- Students are not often willing to apply themselves at the level that Cree demands (see 5,6 above), if they are to achieve competency. (i.e. YOU WILL BLEED FOR CREE or YOU WILL NOT GET THERE). This is not as bad of a problem here, at Brandon, as it has been before. I’ve so far been lucky to have a number of well-motivated students.
- There is an aggressive preference for L1 speakers, whether they have any education about how the language works or not, over L2 speakers who do. Really, over L2 speakers of any sort as teachers is avoided. This is going to have to change (see earlier post).
- People obsessively re-invent the wheel, do not use other curriculum, other resources. Scant resources are wasted creating dictionaries, word lists, etc., which someone else has already done. 20 times. New types of resources, mirroring what is done in teaching other languages, are generally dispreferred.
- There is a strong resistance to comparing aboriginal languages to anything else. Hence, it is politically difficult to point out what the learning expectations are for, say, University-level Japanese. Or how Cree teaching may benefit from teaching Zulu (which shares many typological features with Cree).
- At the same time, there’s a tendency towards (for lack of a better word) “Pan-Indianism,” where somehow a language program for Zuñi (which shares essentially no features in common with Cree) or Maori (ditto) is very important to consider. My knee-jerk reaction is to shake my fist at APTN, but it’s a much larger problem than APTN, of course, and they’re just servicing a perspective that already existed, I think.
- A culture of failure: There’s a deep-seated belief, I think, that somehow the whole enterprise is doomed. Years of turning out students who cannot read “Hello, my name is ___” off a blackboard, who do not know how to pronounce nikamow, has ground a lot of teachers into dust.
- Lack of preparation. Students, when confronted with the Cree system, want to know “why.” Teachers who have avoided asking those hard questions routinely get blind-sided. You can always tell when this has happened, because they answer “No reason. There is no reason. The system doesn’t make sense.” Yes. Yes it does make sense. You just haven’t thought about it. When a student gets that response, the attitude of failure and hopelessness gets worse.
- Most students in a Cree class have never taken a foreign language before. Meaning they have no concept of what learning another language involves, or what is expected of them in a university language-learning environment.
- Students are in a hurry. I mean a REAL hurry. They feel they missed the boat on the language sometime back (often through no fault of their own), and now I think they often feel panicked that they have to make up for lost time. The bad news is that there is NO way to do that. You can’t learn Cree overnight. You can’t even learn it quickly. If you could find a Cree-speaking community, where they wouldn’t immediately switch to English whenever you made a mistake, you could expect maybe 2-3 years of constant exposure to get competent. In the current situation? Hell, I don’t know. I just don’t know. But it ain’t a weekend problem.
- Because of the social context of the language right now (long LONG story), and the general scarcity of speakers & resources, there is nowhere to send students to use the language, to listen to the language, or to learn more of the language. Picture trying to teach/learn French without any French-speaking communities, without any French newspapers and books, without any French movies.
So that’s what I’ve got right now. I’m in a weird position, doing a weird thing, and I no doubt think weird things about it. I often find myself in front of a class of students, wondering “How the *^%*^% did I end up here?” They are obviously surprised to see ME teach these classes, but they have no idea how surprised I am to BE me. I never aimed for this position, honestly, and I would be more than happy to be replaced by someone more skilled. But I’m what’s here now, for better of for worse. So I’m trying to do the best I can.