Sunday September 04, 2016

3 tips for learning your traditional tongue

Patricia Ningewance stands with a painting she did of her grandma, who was the inspiration behind her book, Talking Gookum's Language.

Patricia Ningewance stands with a painting she did of her grandma, who was the inspiration behind her book, Talking Gookum's Language. (Stephanie Cram)

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Reclaiming your traditional tongue is not as hard as you might think, according to Ojibwe language teacher Patricia Ningewance. She encourages everyone to give it a shot, no matter what your age.

Ningewance, from Lac Seul First Nation, Ont., said for Indigenous people, it is also critical to keep the languages alive.

"People my age — I'm in my 60s now — have stopped passing on the language," she said.

"We are proud of our language. We speak it to one another, but we haven't passed it on. It gets stuck in your throat and you can't speak to your children."

Memories of residential school, where students faced punishment for speaking their own language, continue to scar older generations, making it difficult for them to teach their children. 

Ningewance has published phrase books in Ojibwe, Swampy Cree, Inuktitut and Oji-Cree.

The books will help with the learning process, but here are a few key points to remember when diving into a new language.

1. Keep it fun

Ningewance remembers teaching a group of doctors how to speak Ojibwe.

"The first thing they wanted to learn was

[the names for] body parts and descriptions of body parts," said Ningewance. "They were insulting each other, saying the craziest things, obscene things."
Pocket Ojicree

Pocket Ojicree is Ningewance's newest book. She worked with translator Jerry Sawanas from Sioux Lookout, Ont. (Stephanie Cram)

The pocket books were designed to keep learning fun — including an insult section.

Ningewance insists the words in the insult section are for reference only, so you can recognize whether people are speaking ill of you.

"But of course if you want to say them, use them," said Ningewance.

One insult unique to indigenous people is to call someone an egotist.

"To tell someone they think highly of themselves is a huge insult," said Ningewance. "That's because in the native world, humility is a virtue."

2. Learning from your elders

The best way to learn a language is to seek help from an elder or a friend who is already fluent.

Ningewance's grandma was the main inspiration behind her love of language — an inspiration so strong that a painting of her grandmother was included on the cover of her book Talking Gookom's Language.

Talking Gookom's Language

Talking Gookom's Language is one of Ningewance's most popular books. (Mazinaate Inc. )

"She played language games with us like riddles. She had a playful spirit," said Ningewance. "She encouraged us to use our imagination."

The tradition of passing her language on continues with her grandson, Aandeg Muldrew. When Ningewance first started to teach her grandson, they met in restaurants to have simple conversations, or drove around while speaking Ojibwe.

"I would describe actions around us, what people are doing, what cars are doing, what the weather is like," said Ningewance. "Eventually I began asking him to describe what he saw, using whatever vocabulary he knew."

3. Believe you can do it

"Students come to class and they're afraid to learn, because they think it's a huge mountain they have to climb," said Ningewance. "What I try to do with my books is demystify the language and make it easy to learn step by step."

A good place to start when learning a language are phrases you will need to strike up a conversation. For example, 'What's your name?' and 'Where are you from?' are two phrases Ningewance usually uses to start a beginner class. Other easy starting points are learning nouns, numbers and colours.

In as short as three weeks, Ningewance has seen non-fluent students flourish in Ojibwe. With dedication and hard work, Ningewance believes it is possible to pick up any language.

Patricia's books

Patricia Ningewance has published pocket phrase books in Cree, Oji-Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibwe. (Patricia Ningewance )

Stephanie Cram is an associate producer for CBC Aboriginal'. Originally from Edmonton, journalism has taken her to Montreal and Sachigo Lake First Nation in northern Ontario.