Wednesday 12 September 2012

On Learning Cree (and Not Learning Cree)

There's nothing idealistic about the decision to learn a language, nor about the work that ensues thereafter.  There's nothing mysterious about rote memorization, nor the process of developing listening-comprehension and speaking ability.

Anyone can do it.  Compared to any of the hobbies that people devote hundreds of hours to, it is "easy", and relatively cheap.  If you compare it to a sport, there is very little "equipment", and very little strength, stamina, or even talent required.

The trouble is that it isn't a sport that you can practice entirely alone.  You do need a partner who can, at least, throw the ball back-and-forth with you.  Being around other beginners is better than nothing; interacting with fluent speakers is (of course) better still (assuming they have some patience for the mistakes you're bound to make, and some interest in correcting you).  However, being around them still isn't enough, for the same reason that hanging around a gym isn't enough: you do need at least one other person who will do the work with you.

Cree really is an endangered language.  Groceries are not labelled in the language; even inside First Nations University, you will never see a "no smoking" sign written in Cree.  Although I'm surrounded by small grocery stores where I could ask the price of something in Chinese, Vietnamese, and even Lao, there is nowhere that I could buy groceries in Cree; there is nowhere that I could have a simple dialogue (such as "how much does this cost?") in this language, on a daily basis.  This is part of what it entails for a language to be endangered: those who really want to devote the hours to learning it cannot practice by happenstance, but really need to contrive the circumstances to get other speakers into the same room (at the same time) to have even the most basic and pointless discussion imaginable.

When I showed up in Saskatchewan (and formally enrolled to gain a university degree in Cree, as a language) I was optimistic in a very practical sense: although many people warned me about how bad the (institutional) situation here would be, it seemed to me that it couldn't possibly be worse than Cambodia.  There were desks, electric lights, working bathrooms, and even a library: how could it possibly be worse than conditions I'd already known in Laos and Cambodia?

It was, and it is.  A little more than a year later, I'm in a position to report that the situation in Saskatchewan really is worse than Cambodia.  Canada really is playing out the endgame to cultural genocide --and the porcelain bathrooms and well-lit libraries don't help at all.

Universities spend huge quantities of money importing animals to be vivisected in laboratories (including, incidentally, monkeys from Cambodia [exported to the U.S., and to England, etc.]), and they manage to assemble huge contraptions in the name of science (including, incidentally, an "airship" [or Zeppelin] that they painted an Oji-Cree name onto the side of).  Why is it so difficult to get five people sitting around a table, practicing simple sentences, in a native language?

That question does have specific answers.  Many of them are political, others merely bureaucratic, and a minority could be called cultural.  I have had the benefit of meeting and speaking to some of the people who are themselves (more-or-less) mute witnesses to the endgame to cultural genocide that's now unfolding, and who make a study of what those reasons are.  Various institutions are failing in various ways to provide exactly what everyone knows is necessary for an endangered language to survive (or revive).  I didn't just speak to F.N.U., I spoke to institutions from coast to coast (or, at least, from B.C. to Quebec) --across a range that included universities, colleges, and small community centers.

When I lived in Laos, I explained to various people (sometimes in English, and sometimes in Lao) that I would not return to Canada unless I were to learn an indigenous language there (be it Cree, Ojibwe, or otherwise).  There were various reactions.  The Lao understood clearly the distinction between "indigenous" and "non-indigenous" (both as applied to peoples and languages) --these concepts had currency in their own political circumstances.  However, they were extremely unwilling to regard white people as "non-indigenous" in far-away places such as Australia and Canada.  I can remember explaining it also in parallel to the significance of a foreigner learning Lao if he lived in Laos, and Chinese if he lived in China; I would say very simple things (partly because of my limited ability in Lao), such as, "If I wanted to speak English, I would live in England; and if I wanted to speak French, I would live in France".

For a period of about one year, I was able to live up to my own hype in this respect: I completed four courses in the Cree language in the space of 12 months.  I then came to realize that my long-term future in working on the language was already over (whereas I had been hoping that it had just begun).

Canada will never be a "New France", and it will never be a "New England", either; it will forever be defined by the languages and the peoples who were indigenous here --both present and absent, both extant and extinct.  I refuse to be a part of that process of genocide; I said that I wouldn't return to Canada if I couldn't learn Cree, and now that I've proven that I can't learn Cree (despite enrolling in a university program to do exactly that) my resolution is to pack up and leave as soon as possible (as I did once before, many years ago).

I haven't met one other student who actually wants to learn Cree, and I haven't met a single student who has been able to learn Cree through the university system.  I entered the program understanding very well that I would need to spend hundreds of hours writing out words and phrases, listening to audio recordings, and practicing speech, spelling, reading and writing.  I was accustomed to all of that --and I was accustomed to doing it in much more difficult conditions.  I have never had a teacher for any of the other languages I've studied (not Lao, not Pali, not Cambodian, etc.).  Nevertheless, what I brought to the equation wasn't enough: I came to the grim realization that the program at F.N.U. is worse than nothing at all.

I found it difficult to believe that any language class could really be that bad, but over the course of 12 months, it became proven to me.  I have stated this (both verbally and in writing) to my professors: with sadness, I have to admit that the classes are so bad that they are actually a worse use of the student's time than sitting alone with the dictionary and the audio recordings.  The fundamental praxis of speaking in sentences was neither what was being taught, nor learned; nor were any of the students doing it in their spare time; nor was any arrangement possible to spend time hearing or speaking the language (above and beyond coursework).

Instead, students memorized isolated words and rules that were well-suited to testing, and the ensuing tests were easy to get high scores on.  My classmates included several athletes who were taking the courses only to increase their grade averages, two aspiring medical technicians who were trying to raise their grades to meet the minimum requirements for their program, and an array of others who had absolutely no interest in speaking a word of the language after the course had ended.  Many remarked that Cree was much easier than the courses in any other language (including French) for those who had degrees requiring a credit in a "foreign" language.

It was, in short, well-known on campus, that Cree was an easy A+ --and, indeed, it was.  Unfortunately, the A+ did not correspond to the ability to say a single sentence in the Cree language --not even, "How much does this cost?", nor "Where is the bathroom?".  Those are two good examples of sentences that none of the A+ students could manage at the end of the program.  I don't think that this would be true of any other living language taught at the university level.

It was especially depressing for me that we heard very little of the language spoken aloud by the professor(s) in class: months would pass without anything like listening-comprehension work, and without hearing a complete sentence.  After many months, I tried to politely request that something like a children's story be read for the students, so that I could hear a solid paragraph or two spoken continuously (rather than the isolated words that were, as mentioned, directly linked to the exams).

I've discussed this (in much greater detail) with several of the professors at F.N.U., and I do appreciate that they listened with real interest.  They agreed with many of the specifics that I pointed out (in at least one case, a professor warned me in advance of problems that I would later encounter) but they seemed to regard themselves as powerless to make any kind of substantive change.  They're not bad people, and they don't have bad intentions.  They have a bad institution with bad results, that has emerged (ersatz) as a surreal irony at the end of a long political history in which the entire Canadian educational system (not merely the residential schools) actively sought to drive these languages to extinction, while upholding the supremacy of European languages and learning.  It simply isn't the case that we're building on 300 years of scholarship in Cree: we're looking at the ruins left behind by state-sponsored genocide, and a few odd anthropologists and Christian missionaries who produced language studies along the way.

The Canadian university system has been (and remains) more interested in the study of Latin and Ancient Greek than it is in Cree; it wouldn't be difficult to demonstrate that more resources are now going into these languages than Cree, Ojibwe, etc., combined (and, of course, this has been even more stark over the last 300 years cumulatively).  Although this is sad for many different reasons, the one that I would draw attention to here is this: Canada will never be the greatest country in the world to study Latin or Greek.  Never.  It doesn't matter if the budget for those languages is doubled or tripled: Canada could at best achieve mediocrity relative to Europe in the scholarship of European languages.

If your country is a European colony that defines itself in terms of European culture, then you'll always be second-rate in the very same culture that you valorize: Canada simply has no unique advantage in any of these areas, and will always be at the same kind of disadvantage as Australia.  Despite the endless propaganda of the C.B.C. on the subject, I don't know if anyone in this country is really deluded enough to believe that Canada could ever be a great country to study English literature in (or French literature, for that matter).  Nobody in Canada seems to be convinced of the importance of Australian literature, nor are the Australians very impressed with our output in Canada; on the contrary, all of the former colonies merely shuffle along with their second-tier, derivative traditions, that they pour resources into promoting (and exaggerating the importance of) for the domestic audience.

Likewise, Canada will never be a great place to learn Chinese; at most, it can hope for mediocrity (at great expense) for the same fundamental reasons.  Nevertheless, the resources put into teaching Chinese (in the current generation) are enormous compared to Cree, Ojibwe, or any indigenous language (and a simple glance at a map of where any of these languages can be studied within Canada will convince anyone of this).

Meanwhile, the languages, heritage, history and politics that Canada has a unique advantage in dealing with (and a unique responsibility to deal with) are being neglected, for the sake of some really third-rate attempts to reproduce the "high culture" of other continents.

Canada is never going to have the world's greatest ballet, nor opera; it is never going to have the world's greatest Beijing Opera [京劇/京剧], either.  Conversely, we're always going to be burdened with the legacy of the terrible mess we've made of First Nations languages, literature --and the treatment of the First Nations peoples themselves.

It would be completely laughable if anyone said that the generations of the future would judge "us" (Canadians) by how well or how poorly we had reproduced the high culture of Europe.  Conversely, I think that nobody would deny that history really will judge Canada in terms of its ongoing erasure of its indigenous peoples, languages, and so on.

For a whole generation, it is already too late.  For myself in particular, it is already too late.

I will never have another opportunity to learn Cree, such as I thought I would have at F.N.U.; when it became clear that there was no such opportunity at F.N.U., I sought out any other opportunity elsewhere, and found none --receiving some very blunt advice in reply indicating that other universities may regard their own language programs as even more hopeless!  However, the most hopeless aspect of the equation is this: I honestly have not met even one other student who is seeking out such opportunities.  Although I met many students who reflected on the political importance on the language, and many who praised me for the efforts that they could see I was making, and while I spoke to several young parents who said that they would (hypothetically) like to help their children learn the language (without knowing it themselves), I simply never met anyone who was doing the work --nor anyone who aspired to do it.