In Depth

N.B. needs immersion-style language education for First Nations students

Eleven First Nations language immersion teachers spent Thursday at St. Mary's First Nation learning about Indigenous immersion classes.

Of the estimated 3,000 Maliseet living in N.B., Andrea Bear Nicholas says only 300-400 speak their language

Conor Quinn says he learned Irish Gaelic and understands the need to learn an ancestral language. (CBC)

Eleven First Nations language immersion teachers spent Thursday at St. Mary's First Nation learning about Indigenous immersion classes.

Conor Quinn, a documentary maker and linguist who teaches the course, knows both the Maliseet and Mi'kmaq languages, and has a working knowledge of 30 others.

He says he knows first hand how it feels to want to understand one's ancestral language, which is how he felt about Irish Gaelic before he finally learned it.

"It's hard to learn and there are reasons why people stop speaking it, or felt pressured to stop speaking it, because people say 'What's the point of learning it?' Basically all of the colonial mind set," said Quinn.

These languages are the heart and soul for our land and people and these languages are being systematically killed off.- Andrea Bear Nicholas

Quinn is an advocate of an immersion-style of learning because it's worked in other parts of the world.

He cited the Maori of New Zealand, as well as places such as Norway and Hawaii, as examples of people and places that have successfully saved their Indigenous languages.

Quinn said in Hawaii, students can now go from grade school up to a PhD in their ancestral mother tongue.

"You plunk people into a language and do what you did to learn the first language ... It's sort of just spending a lot of time learning the language, to speak it," said Quinn.

He said the best way to learn is to be surrounded with the language, but when there aren't that many speakers, it's easier to just speak English.

Mother tongue

Quinn said he felt the hardest part for Indigenous speakers is that they naturally speak English to those who don't understand the language, rather than just sticking to their mother tongue.

That's something Andrea Bear Nicholas has also pointed to as a problem.
Andrea Bear Nicholas, an emeritus professor at St. Thomas University, advocates for Indigenous immersion language classes because she sees value in the languages beyond the classroom. (CBC)

"We get it coming both ways. Our elders were once punished for speaking their language in residential schools and community reserve schools," said Nicholas, an emeritus professor at St. Thomas University.

"And our young people are ridiculed, in a sense, because they don't know their own language."

She feels the best way to save these languages is through total immersion programs, much like in the francophone school system.

"We're dealing with some old thinking," she said. 

"We're still in the old frame of, 'It's just a little extra for our children to learn, its not something they really need to speak.' I think that's the attitude in general," said Nicholas.

Nicholas said she has advocated for Indigenous immersion languages for years, and says the province could benefit from revitalizing the languages. In other places in the world, she said, when people know their mother tongue they tend to do better in school and end up in prison less often.

Heart and soul

"These languages are the heart and soul for our land and people and these languages are being systematically killed off," said Nicholas.

While there are core programs, she said they don't work because students only spend 40 minutes a day in their language and the rest of the school day is in English.

She says she hopes the Maliseet, Mi'kmaq and Passamaquoddy languages are saved one day, but the speakers of the languages are getting older.

Conor Quinn is teaching 11 students about Indigenous languages and is hoping an immersion program can revitalize First Nation languages in the region. (CBC)

It is estimated there are 3,000 Maliseet living in New Brunswick. Nicholas says only 300-400 still speak their language, but she hopes more First Nations youth learn the language and are provided with a safe space to speak it.

Quinn agreed that new speakers to a language are often shy and uncomfortable. They tend to feel like they are under the spotlight and he hopes that immersion programs can instill a feeling of community.

"But if you have these techniques that worked for Maori, that worked for Hawaii and that have worked for the Mohawks, and put them in writing, that can maintain immersion. They just work."

About the Author

Oscar Baker III

Oscar Baker III is from Elsipogtog First Nation, and St. Augustine, Fla. He is a freelancer based in Wabanaki.