New Brunswick

Immersion key to preserving traditional Wolastoqey language

A well-known Wolastoqey language rights advocate says the key to preserving the traditional language of the Wolastoqey nation is immersion.

Andrea Bear Nicholas says very few fluent speakers remain

The former chair of native studies at St. Thomas University, Andrea Bear Nicholas, says immersion is the key to revitalizing the Wolastoqey language. (Submitted by Andrea Bear Nicholas)

The key to preserving the traditional language of the Wolastoqey nation is immersion, says a well-known Wolastoqey language rights advocate. 

"No language will survive unless there are schools in the language,"  Andrea Bear Nicholas said. 

"And I'm not talking about teaching the language. I'm talking about learning in the language."

Bear Nicholas has been promoting immersion for more than 25 years and she still believes it's the answer. The difference now is that time is running out. 

Bear Nicholas, who was chair of native studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton for 20 years, said there are only a handful of fluent speakers of Wolastoqey left — and far fewer than the official numbers.

According to the 2016 census, 280 New Brunswickers reported their "mother tongue" as being Malecite, the term the census uses for Wolastoqey. 

A sign on the Neqotkuk First Nation welcoming visitors in the traditional language of the nation, Wolastoqey. (Submitted by Darrah Beaver)

Bear Nicholas said there is "no way" that many people are fluent speakers. 

She was part of a team that interviewed the most fluent speakers in the province 12 years ago. She said many of them were unable to "stay in the language" and kept reverting back to English.

"Most of them are not able to really be part of a revitalization." 

Bear Nicholas said even fewer of them are able to read and write in the Malecite writing system. She estimates there are only a half-dozen of them left. 

That's why she is having trouble translating the last few pages of a book she's writing. Her husband was fluent in reading and writing and translated the majority of the book, but he's unable to continue after a number of strokes. 

Resolution from chief and council

On Thursday, Neqotkuk Chief Ross Perley announced that the community would make Wolastoqey the official language.

Darrah Beaver, a Wolastoqey language revitalization adviser for the community, said there are Canadian examples of Indigenous languages making a comeback. 

"It can be done," she said. "We're aware of languages where … there were no speakers that have created new speakers." 

She pointed to Eskasoni, a First Nation community on Cape Breton Island, where the traditional language, Mi'kmaq, seems to be alive and well.

Darrah Beaver, a Wolastoqey language revitalization planner, hopes Neqotkuk's resolution inspires other First Nations to do the same thing. (Submitted by Darrah Beaver)

Beaver said Eskasoni started with an immersion pilot program for kindergarten and developed a curriculum for each school year as that cohort progressed through school. 

For many years, the program was offered at the Eskasoni Elementary and Middle School, but in 2015, they opened a new school dedicated to an entirely immersive curriculum.

Beaver said there are similar success stories in Quebec and British Columbia. 

"We know we do have resources — living resources — and speakers amongst us, as well as new adult second-language learners who have come back to the language. So we know the potential is there. It just takes the work."

Clock is ticking

Bear Nicholas said the clock is ticking. She said such programs need fluent speakers in order to  be successful — and most fluent speakers of Wolastoqey are over the age of 60. 

She said that not one of the people teaching Wolastoqey in public school in Perth Andover or in Neqotkuk is a fluent speaker. 

Bear Nicholas said the key to preserving the language is engaging young people through an immersion program throughout their school years. She studied one program in Hawaii that was eventually able to offer schooling in their traditional language from kindergarten to PhD. 

"Our language is being taken from us every day our children have to go to school in another language, whether it be French or English," she said. " And that is the destruction that is occurring, even in those schools where there's language courses."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mia Urquhart is a journalist with CBC New Brunswick, based in Saint John. She can be reached at mia.urquhart@cbc.ca.

With files from Information Morning in the Summer

now