When a Q sounds like H, you must be speaking Mi'kmaq

Marcella Williams and Shane Snook say learning the language has given them a window into their culture.

Flat Bay teachers have learned the language and are helping others to speak it

Marcella Williams and Shane Snook are Mi'kmaq educators, who were invited to hold language workshops in St. John's. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Two Newfoundlanders who taught themselves to speak Mi'kmaq are now teaching others in an effort to preserve the Indigenous languages that were once spoken widely across Canada. 

Marcella Williams and Shane Snook were invited to offer a series of workshops at Identify, an Indigenous arts and culture festival hosted by Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John's.

Learning and teaching Mi'kmaq has not only been a way to hold on to a piece of their heritage for themselves and others, but also to gain a greater understanding of the lives their ancestors lived, they told the St. John's Morning Show.

"It just felt like there was a piece missing," said Williams.

"With my Indigenous culture, I've been lucky enough to grow up with and have a lot of those teachings that a lot of people didn't have — but I didn't have my language."

My drug of choice is learning something new and teaching someone else.- Marcella Williams

It used to be that holding on to the Mi'kmaq language, and other Indigenous languages, was considered a detriment, she said.

It was something that might make it too obvious you were Indigenous, and make employment difficult.

"'In the west coast [of Newfoundland], if you wanted to work on the base [in Stephenville] you weren't an Indian," Williams said. People tried to hide their heritage in order to avoid discrimination.

"You had to."

And Indigenous children were not allowed to use their native languages in the residential school system, which prevented their transmission from generation to generation.

A window into Mi'kmaq culture

Learning Mi'kmaq has led to greater understanding of the culture, said Williams and Snook.

"Once you start to learn, you realize how much it makes sense," Williams said. "There's a lot of words that there won't necessarily be an automatic translation for, because of the way the language works."

Shane Snook started studying Mi'kmaq about five years ago.

"It was mostly curiosity getting started, but I started learning more and more and hearing more interesting tidbits about what words meant, the root meanings," Snook said. 

"As you start to learn the language, you get to really understand how our ancestors thought and operated. It really helps you understand that perspective from years ago."

Children attend an Eskasoni Mi'kmaq immersion school in Nova Scotia. Immersion is a key part of making the jump to language fluency, Williams and Snook said. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Now Snook hopes to continue his own language education in order to share those nuances and that understanding with others. 

"As I get more confident and more capable I've also been getting more involved in helping share what I know," he said.

Snook and Williams are both certified by the Grenfell campus of Memorial University as basic orthography teachers. Passing that knowledge on is a key part of learning, said Williams, who loves to see children learn a new Mi'kmaq word.

"I always say my drug of choice is learning something new and teaching someone else," she said. "If you don't follow that through, it gets lost a bit."

Fewer letters, different sounds

But language education has its challenges as well, such as the lack of fluent speakers, and the language is in many ways very different from English.

It has fewer letters and the sounds associated with a particular letter in English can be quite different in Mi'kmaq. There are also unfamiliar sounds.

"There are a couple of extra sounds in the Mi'kmaq language that aren't in the English language," Snook said. "When you're learning the language you actually need to train your face to make that sound." 

For example, the sound for the letter Q in Mi'kmaq is made similarly to an H in English, but the tongue is pushed further back to restrict airflow, producing a different sound.

It's important for Mi'kmaq learners to not only listen to the language be spoken, but also repeat it themselves.

"If you hear someone and you want to learn, say it after them. That way you'll get that muscle memory in your mouth," Williams said.

"It is a learning process. I'll be learning the rest of my life," she added. "I don't say that to discourage people. I want to see more people wanting to learn, it's important."