Monday, 7 January 2013

Prof Lorna Williams Defending (or Abandoning?) First Nations Language Education

If it were impossible to teach languages in the classroom, it would be unethical for universities to charge money (and offer degrees) for students to learn languages in the classroom.  Nobody makes such claims for languages like Chinese (that are certainly difficult to learn in the classroom) and yet this is offered as a very casual excuse for why educational programs in Canada's indigenous languages are failing --and it is offered as an excuse for why their failure shouldn't matter.


In an apparent riposte to my earlier article on my efforts to learn Cree, and mentioning my more recent lament that I'll have to throw my Cree books in the garbage, Lorna Williams wrote in to inform me that you can't learn a language in a classroom anyway.  Well, that certainly is a convenient justification to simply "give up" on a system of classroom education that is failing, while other languages are being successfully taught right down the hall (in the same universities, etc.).  Lorna Williams is not mere a professor, but also a "Canada Research Chair" (which means that she makes big decisions about how big sums of money get spent).  My reply follows her message, below.

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Eisel, I find your email distressing in that you make sweeping claims that
no one cares about or wants to learn Cree. It is true that one cannot
learn a language by taking a course, you need to be immersed in the
language for a period of time. I also cannot believe that there is no one
to give the books to, I know if you brought them to Dr. Jan van Eijk he
would be happy to redistribute them to other students who would benefit
from them. I hope you will find what you are looking for as you continue
on your travels. Lorna


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L.W.,

> Eisel, I find your email distressing…

It is distressing.  The situation at F.N.U. is distressing.  I'm
distressed.  If you've read my article about my experience at F.N.U.,
and you find it distressing, that's good: the article is intended to
raise difficult questions, that nobody inside the institution wants to
ask.  The president of the university, etc., have all seen the article
already.

> It is true that one cannot
> learn a language by taking a course…

That is not true:
• Nobody in the department of Japanese would make this excuse,  claiming that it is impossible for the students to learn Japanese inside a classroom anyway, etc.
• Nobody in the department of Chinese would make this excuse, claiming that it is impossible for the students to learn [Chinese] inside a classroom anyway, etc.
• Even in the case of "dead languages", nobody in the department of Latin, Greek, etc. would make this excuse, claiming that it is impossible for the students to learn [Latin or Greek] inside a classroom anyway, etc.

In reality, it is much more difficult to learn languages like Chinese
than it is to learn Cree.  In many ways, it is more difficult to learn
dead languages than living languages (including even endangered,
living languages).

If the institutions want to provide language-instruction, they can.
None of these institutions lack the resource[s].  In Cambodia, Laos,
etc., I have seen institutions that lack the resources.  Here in
Canada, we have working electricity and chalkboards: aside from a few
people who really care (and want to get the job done) that's all you
really need.

> …you need to be immersed in the language for a period of time.

Well, there are language departments teaching Japanese that make
arrangements for their students to have some immersion in the
language: but nothing like that is possible for First Nations
languages here (despite the fact that it is much cheaper to take a bus
to Prince Albert than it is to take an airplane to Japan!).  I am well
aware of the benefits of language-immersion, and I discuss them in the
same article about learning Cree (I don't know if you read it in full
before replying) where I complain that institutions need to take a
more active role (even if it is just in organizing bus-trips!) so that
students will have more direct language exposure --because it is much
easier to meet people who speak Chinese than it is to meet people who
speak Cree in downtown Regina.

My short article, again, is here:
http://a-bas-le-ciel.blogspot.ca/2012/09/on-learning-cree-and-not-learning-cree.html

> …I know if you brought them to Dr. Jan van Eijk

(Image from "Rate my Professors")

I have met and spoken to Prof. Jan van Eijk many times, and he knows about every stage of my personal tragedy (in trying to learn Cree, etc.).  If you think he cares in the slightest, think again.  I begged for his help many times.  The only help that I received was one short e-mail, suggesting that I write to a certain professor at U.B.C., to ask if there was any hope there; I did receive a very useful reply from U.B.C., saying that their situation was even more hopeless (for language instruction) than F.N.U.

> I hope you will find what you are looking for as you continue
> on your travels.

I won't: my life and all my aspirations have been destroyed.  If I
can't learn Cree within Canada, I can't learn it anywhere.  I searched
this entire country for any possibility of learning Cree or Ojibwe
(from U.B.C. to Montreal) and I didn't find any viable option (on the
contrary, many of the replies I received were just as bleak as the one
I've mentioned from U.B.C.).

First Nations language education is in a situation worse than a
crisis.  Don't make excuses that nobody in their right mind would
offer for any other language: if it was impossible to teach a language
in a classroom, why is the classroom of such vital importance for
every other language on earth?  Why was classroom teaching of such
enormous importance to the revival of other endangered languages?

Yes, people do need classroom instruction in Cree: I'm one of them.  I
couldn't get it.  I'll never have the opportunity to study the
language again.  This is a personal tragedy for me --and it wasted two
years of my life.  That's how the story ends for me --[and] 99.9% of people
who have a similar disappointment will not be able to publish an
article about it (and won't have the nerve to complain directly to
people like Prof. Jan Van Eijk).

E.M.

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For the sake of contrast (and because this was mentioned, in passing, in the message above), here is the exceedingly polite response to the same article that I received from Vianne Timmons, President of the University of Regina.

V.T. on the C.B.C. (source).
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Eisel,
Thank you for your email.  I read you Blog with interest.  I will share your concerns with the President of First Nations University.  You raise so may issues that are important. Preserving the Cree language is important and I know that your insights will help in improving language instruction.
Thank you again for taking the time to write.
Dr. Timmons


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The photograph of President Timmons, above, was pulled from a C.B.C. article on the long-term scandal of how high the salaries are for university administrators.  I appreciate that she took the time to read my work and reply; however, I neither expect that she nor anyone else in power (and earning above $350,000 per year) is going to take on the challenge of fundamentally improving the situation for the study and preservation of Canada's indigenous and endangered languages.  Both the opportunity and the obligation to make a positive difference are unique to Canada: we can't expect London, Paris or Berlin to excel in the study of these languages.  Sadly, the leaders in the field will either be educated here, or else nowhere at all.

F.N.U., big lawn, big windows… bad language courses (Image = Wikipedia).