Unsure how to say "Hello" or "Thank you" in Mi'kmaq, never mind something more complex?

There's an online resource where you can hear three different Mi'kmaq speakers pronounce nearly 4,000 words, in some cases including their regional variants.

Mi'gmaq-Mi'kmaq Online is the result of the efforts of several people working independently to preserve the language.

Diane Mitchell, of Listuguj First Nation in Quebec, is one of them. She's a Mi'kmaq language teacher and became interested in creating a resource for learners when her daughter was just a toddler. She realized the child wasn't hearing Mi'kmaq all the time as Mitchell herself did growing up.

"We were living in southern Ontario," Mitchell said, "and I thought, 'Hmm, what can I do to fix it?' Initially, I was just actually going to do a small recorded database for her, and over years it grew into an online dictionary."

'This was ours'

Mitchell said her original intention was to use an already compiled Mi'kmaq lexicon, record pronunciation and upload it. Many people have worked on the project over the years, she said, but it received a big boost from a missionary in New Brunswick.

She said a man named Watson Williams, who is not Mi'kmaq, had been for years compiling dictionaries of the language and offered a database to the group.

"He said that this was not his; this was ours. This belonged to Mi'kmaq people. This was language that came from us," Mitchell said.

Williams was mindful of different orthographies or pronunciation variants among Mi'kmaq communities, Mitchell said, and created simultaneous lists of those variations.

"He was a missionary, and he wanted to translate Bibles," she said. "That's how most people who are non-Mi'kmaq come to it … so many people come to it, usually through religion, and wind up becoming linguists."

Adding all the time

Online audio technology has improved over the last 20 years and these days it's a matter of simply adding new words as they come up.

The words are recorded with a Listuguj pronunciation, although Mitchell would like to have more words recorded by Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq speakers.

"There are regional difference. Some are very old," she said. "It's the same language. It's the same grammar in particular.

"I'm kind of the opinion now that our regional variances are getting larger because we are not assembling and speaking to each other in Mi'kmaq. We tend to use English as kind of the common language, so we're not hearing each others' variances."

Ironically, after all her years of work helping create the Mi'kmaq database to advance her daughter's knowledge of the language, her daughter did not become a Mi'kmaq speaker.

"She has very good pronunciation," Mitchell said. "Had I realized when she was a really young child that all I really had to do was speak exclusively Mi'kmaq to her, she would have been a speaker. That actually is the magic. You know, parents who have dual languages in their home are well aware of this. I spoke Mi'kmaq to my daughter but not exclusively and that's what I should have done." 

With files from Information Morning Cape Breton