Language teaching at the University

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.”
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. 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.
  10. 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).
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.

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About Mr. Môniyâw

Age: 37 Lives: All over the place. Education: PhD, linguistics, UBC.
This entry was posted in academia, colonialism, cultural meaning, education, grammar, language, Methodology, philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Language teaching at the University

  1. S Olivier says:

    I am curious, what kind of things do you mean when you say that Zulu and Cree are similar? I have some familiarity with Zulu (via studying Xhosa), but am only vaguely aware of the Algonquian system and have never studied an Algic language; it’s never occurred to me that the two families are that similar. What am I missing? What similarities were you thinking of?

    • There are a vast number of similarities between the Southern Bantu languages and Algonquian. It’s quite startling, and Bantu linguists I bump into at conferences invariably comment on it as well. From the object marking triggering word-order alterations to the suffixation contrasts for filled vs. null-objects, from the prefixation patterns to some of the dependent clause constructions, it’s really a very interesting bit of typology. Even the Wh-constructions both can use extraction marking. Because the 2 language families have nothing genetically in common, the similarities are quite interesting. It speaks to some underlying logic of human language.

  2. Dale says:

    The fact that you’re going about four times faster is a massive step forward in confronting a lot of what you’ve talked about. I gave a workshop on language teaching to a group of language teachers, brought in a group of random students and did some language activities gradually bringing in a lot of both words and structure. The teachers all said “that was way to much for the students to absorb”, only to have the students argue with them that they got it. If you spoon-feed learners, they’ll expect to be able to skip a class and catch up easy. The other teachers will expect to be able to pull kids out of your class for one reason or another without it impacting you (hopefully not a problem in university!), and the kids will assume that that is the speed at which they can learn.

    Not only do people constantly re-invent the wheel, they re-invent the left rear wheel, over and over and over again. So much curriculum is written for what should essentially be the first week of class (or ignored for a year or two like colours, most numbers and months), that the rest is never got to.

    Your number 14 I think is quite significant. I have yet to meet a very successful learner of Cree or Michif as an L2 who had not already learnt at least one other L2, if not 2 or 3. Confidence and learning/teaching tools. In BC at least, the preference for L1 speakers as teachers really acerbates this, since the style of language teaching these speakers remember is how they were taught English as kids at residential school, not realizing that they didn’t really learn English in the classroom.

    Finally, the last one. This has been the most challenging for me. I know a lot of Cree speakers, but how many of them ever speak Cree? With Michif speakers, it’s normal to go a half hour of me speaking Michif, and them speaking English, before the conversation fully switches. Trying to teach someone the language who absolutely has no exposure, well my only solution has been to focus on preparing them to use a corpus of recordings to learn from, and it seems to be working, though it’s still a poor second to having families or communities you can talk to. This assumption that recordings will have to fill the roll of television, magazines, and such is why I tend to focus so much on recording and making the recordings available to learners. That, and the fact that after having taught a student for a year, I have all kinds of questions that need answering!

    Part of the problem is that the traditions in curriculum still assume somehow the ubiquity of the L1 speaking grandparent and relatives, not realizing that increasingly for a language program to be successful it has to provide that language community, or teach in a way that the students form such a community…

    NEways, thanks for the post. I actually came over here looking to ask you a question about something I saw in a Michif story. I’ll give the whole sentence:

    “Ketahtawe kii-shipwehtew dañ la Rivyer Ruuzh ohchi, kii-itohtew a lwest, dañ Saskatchewan kii-ayaaw la fam (chikema maaka ekoshpi ‘Saskatchewan’ no kii-itewak anima la teyr ekota, yaeñk lii shavaazh pi lii michif kii-wiikit dañ lii preyrii ekota, ekoshpi no aeñ part di Canada kii-ayaaw.) ”

    My question is – why “kii-wiikit” ? not (ee)-kii-wiikichik…. It just seems so not quite right that I’m wondering if this is an older construction with a specific meaning…

    • Taanshi, Dale?

      I think everything you said about language teaching is right on! I’ve been using recordings with students here – from good, old, speakers who now ê-nakataskêcik, you know? It’s good for them to connect to their oldest documented heritage that way, too. Getting a monolingual speaker like Sarah Whitecalf or a great storyteller like Alice Ahenakew or a truly gifted rhetorician like Jim kâ-nîpitêhtêw in their head will help them in the long run, I think, in a lot of ways…

      About the Michif stuff. Are you puzzled about the lack of plural there or the lack of initial change (ê-, etc.)? I think the lack of initial change there is because, honestly, Michif has A LOT more Saulteaux in it than people seem to know about. That’s very Saulteaux to me. Saulteaux uses a lot of bare conjunct clauses when doing temporal sequenced stuff like that. The first time I saw it, in a text, I was shocked. I had no idea Saulteaux was so different from Cree wrt to initial change. In Cree, you pretty much never get bare conjunct like that.

      As for the number mismatch (if I understand) between lii shavaazh pi lii michif and kii-wiikit, that’s really cool. I’m not perfect with Michif, but if I understand, this is talking about the ‘way things were’ in the sort of generic past? Normally, in Cree and Saulteaux, you use a bare singular form for those. I think Ives Goddard called it the ‘characteristic singular’ in a paper he gave sometime back. So the verb form, on its own, is perfectly natural for Cree. The plural/singular mismatch is really quite striking, as you noticed of course. It’s possible that they’re being treated as a ‘group’ in the French part of their grammar (where they’re being treated as a single grammatical unit). It’s also possible that it’s evidence of a real, honest-to-goodnes split between their French and Cree grammars. The Cree context calls for a singular, the French context calls for a plural. And there you have it.

      Regardless, you should see how many more of those you have. Asking speakers, too, about it would obviously be majorly enlightening. If it’s a pattern, then it’s definitely worth putting together a paper on.

      • Dale says:

        The “characteristic singular” makes sense, as I found a couple other examples of the exact same thing in a similar context – I’d just never noticed in while recording before! In the same story, there’s a lot of initial reduplication used with a similar meaning, again something that I haven’t heard used quite enough to get used to. The lack of plural was what my real question was about – though the lack of initial change is still something that’s on my mind! I guess I need to look more at Saulteaux, as the presence or lack of ee- is a pattern that I just haven’t quite been able to make sense of semantically.

  3. Bruce says:

    Hello/tan’si Moniyaw linguist, obviously it sounds like you are struggling with getting the students motivated to learn Cree in the University setting. I would like to say there are others who teach courses who do not have the same kind of passion or commitment as you have in teaching. I think your students are aware of this and may feel that they cannot achieve this kind of expectation from themselves. Sometimes as learners and teachers we cannot seem to grasp at the moment the things we are suppose to know and understand to get to the next level. I also think the physical learning environment is not conducive to cultural appropriate ways of learning. Ie. we had the old people and parents showing and modelling the behaviors they expected of us. The language was taught with repetition in any context situation we were in. In regards with all the linguistic terminology i have a hard time accepting this scientific and academic way of teaching the language. I guess what I am trying to say is to keep it simple in your mind and somehow the content will and can be absorbed by the learners. My thoughts moniyaw linguist. keep up the good work!

    • Tânsi, Bruce?

      Thanks for the kind words and good input. I appreciate it!

      I know this is not how the language was learned naturally – yep! This is true for all languages, really, and not just Cree. The truth is that nobody actually really learns a language at the University. What they do is get themselves a big fat toolbox of knowledge that they can take to the language contexts. This is as true for German and Spanish as it is for Cree. You won’t learn Spanish in a classroom – you will APPROACH Spanish in the classroom. You won’t learn Spanish until you go to Mexico with your toolbox and start using it.

      I do think aboriginal communities need to re-think how they understand their own past, honestly. Aboriginal elders never actually TAUGHT the language to children. They simply LIVED the language in front of the children. There was no formal instruction in Cree – ever. No explicit comment on how to build a sentence, etc. There never is in any real language context. There’s just people – living. The idea that somehow the elders can be asked now to ‘teach’ Cree, as though that is something elders do, is pretty unrealistic. Elders (and here I mean actual Elders and not just old people – as a Blackfoot friend of mind pointed out many years ago to me) – Elders have always led by example. They ‘teach’ Cree by being Cree, by living Cree. nêhiyaw-isîhcikêwina are living, acted things – as they should be.

      I think there’s also two kinds of ‘repetition’ that need to be constrasted. An old philosopher from the 19th century made this distinction, and it’s useful, I think. There’s ‘repetition’ like the seasons ‘repeat.’ From year to year, in a cycle. Natural things are full of this kind of repetition – and language (as a natural thing) is full of this, too. Then there’s ‘repetition’ like a machine does. Chunk, chunk, chunk over and over the exact same thing. This is not natural – no natural thing repeats in this way. This is what is often done to children in a ‘repetition’ context for teaching, unfortunately. It’s important, I think, to keep in mind the difference.

      In a University, nothing is lived or acted out, so of course it’s not going to be natural. Within that context, with adults, language learning can be an opportunity for critical thinking and systematic learning. The linguistic approach DOES work. It works in Mandarin, it works in German, it works in Indonesian, in Turkish, in isiZulu. But only if you have a community to send the student back to, to start living what they’ve learned. We don’t honestly have that right now, and it’s very disheartening.

      Anyway, it’s great to hear from you. I do have some great students here – a couple of them really impressed me with their commitment and enthusiasm. And they’re learning.

      You know, there’s a lot of ways to learn something, and so I think there’s a reason there’s a lot of people to teach it. I think all ways people have to teach something are probably right – for some students.

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