Mi'kmaq Language Instruction Attracting Non-native Students
NOTE: The following is a feature story from the Office of Aboriginal Affairs.
When Melody Martin-Googoo was a child, she didn't have the option of hearing her mother tongue spoken in school, let alone taught. Things have certainly changed since then. Now, Melody, who holds a master's degree in education, is sanctioned by her school board to teach the Mi'kmaq language.
Although the Mi'kmaq Language Program is not as well funded as the established French program and the curriculum is still being developed, Melody's Mi'kmaq language classes are full. This year she's teaching about 75 eager students at Truro Junior High; students who in grade six were given the option of studying either Mi'kmaq or French. Surprisingly, quite a number of non-Aboriginal students choose Melody's class. "They've grown up surrounded by the Mi'kmaq culture," she says, referring to the nearby Millbrook Mi'kmaq community. "They're curious, they want to learn."
Melody grew up in Millbrook. Her mother, Patsy Paul Martin, was also a teacher and passionate about the revitalization of the Mi'kmaq language. As a result, she strongly encouraged Melody to speak her language and Cape Breton relatives were under strict instructions not to speak English when young Melody visited. Five years ago, when Melody graduated and was offered the opportunity to teach Mi'kmaq with the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board, it was a no-brainer. Teaching at Truro Junior High has also given her the chance to educate the students of her own community. "I really felt that my community had supported me in my education," she says. "They were so excited that I had become a teacher and I really wanted to give back to them."
For Melody, a 32-year-old mother of two, passing on her language is intensely personal. "I'm not just sitting in a classroom delivering a curriculum. I know how crucial it is for people to learn the language. I know how significant it is to our identity and to our being." With only a tiny fraction of her community still able to speak Mi'kmaq, Melody sometimes wonders if it's already too late. "I think we're so used to speaking English, that we don't realize we're not even speaking our language to each another anymore," says Melody. "I think people have forgotten it's our mother tongue. We need that back. We need grandparents speaking to their grandchildren. We need to see our young people not afraid to speak it, to be proud to speak it."
In fact, Melody's master's research revealed a disturbing stigma associated with speaking Mi'kmaq. She found that there is a wide-spread myth, even among her own people, that someone who studies French as their second language is going to end up smarter than someone who studies Mi'kmaq. "Parents think if their kids take the Mi'kmaq language, over French, then their kids aren't going to do as well in school."
Sister Dorothy Moore is a Mi'kmaq educator who has been recognized by both the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada. She was directly involved in the development of the Mi'kmaq language curriculum when she served as Director of Mi'kmaq Services at the Nova Scotia Department of Education. Like Melody, Sister Moore feels strongly that the loss of the Mi'kmaq language is tied to the loss of their unique culture and she applauds Melody's passion for reviving the language among junior high students. "As an educator, Melody has the persuasive power to stop the continued erosion of the Mi'kmaq language and to reinstill the beauty of the language in the minds and hearts of youth."
Each year, Melody starts her Mi'kmaq classes with a poem - I Lost My Talk - written by the Poet Laureate of the Mi'kmaq people, Rita Joe. Melody engages her class in a discussion about the emotional ramifications of losing your language and how they can stop that from happening. "I try to get them to realize how important and how significant it is that they are in my class, learning the Mi'kmaq language. I applaud them for taking the first steps and making the effort."
As the only teacher hired by her school board to teach Mi'kmaq, Melody dreams of a day when Mi'kmaq immersion programs are available for all Mi'kmaq students. Currently, the only other school board that has Mi'kmaq language curriculum is in Eskasoni, Cape Breton. The teachers there have freely shared both their knowledge and guidance with Melody and the developing program at Truro Junior High.
In Melody's mind, the time is now - this is the generation that has to make an effort to revitalize and to regain the language. "It's almost like we're in an emergency state," she says. "Running around trying to fix the wrongs of the past and to let our people know how important it is to learn this language."
When she sees her students practicing and speaking Mi'kmaq together, it gives her hope. "By the time they leave grade nine, we look at our journey together and realize there is much more to learn," she says. "I've given them the tools and now they need to go out and build what they can with those tools. It's up to them to encourage others to speak the language back to them." One of the tools that Melody uses to get the Mi'kmaq language out into the mainstream is the "Speaking Mi'kmaq" component of the Truro Daily News. She records a Mi'kmaq word and its English translation once a week on their website, www.trurodaily.com.
Melody is heartened by the fact that the general public is becoming more appreciative of the role of the Mi'kmaq people in Nova Scotia. "It's so different now. I'm teaching Mi'kmaq and I'm being supported by the people around me - my peers, my co-workers, my administration, the parents. We're in this together. It's not about you and me anymore. It's about us. Welta'sultetis kinu Kikmanaq - our ancestors would be proud."