Keepers of the Language: Chipewyan host says it's never too late to learn

As host of CBC North's Denesuline Yatia radio program, Marlene Grooms says she is constantly learning more about her language. CBC is profiling language keepers to acknowledge the UN International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Grooms has been the voice of CBC North's Chipewyan language program for more than 5 years

Marlene Grooms, host of CBC North's Chipewyan-language news and current affairs show, Denesuline Yatia, says it's never too late to learn your language. (Samantha Stuart Photography)

CBC is doing a series of stories to recognize that the United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The observance is meant to raise awareness about the consequences of losing endangered languages, and to establish a link between language, development, peace and reconciliation.

  • Scroll down for the article in Chipewyan

When Marlene Grooms can't find the Chipewyan — or Denesuline, the traditional name for the language she uses on her program — translation for an English word, she phones around.

Like when she needed a word for "ozone layer."

The host of Denesuline Yatia, CBC North's Chipewyan-language news and current affairs radio show, called up an elder for advice.

    "NIH-kar," he suggested. It means, "a blanket around the Earth."

    "I said, 'Oh yes, that makes sense, when you think about it in the Dene way,'" said Grooms. "When you think about it, there is a protector right around the Earth."

    Grooms, who is going into her sixth year at CBC, said she thinks in the Dene way when approaching people to interview on her show.

    I just love doing what I'm doing … I love speaking my language.

    For example, she won't simply state the topic of discussion, she'll describe it, because "that's how we think."

    Take climate change.

    Instead of naming the phenomenon, Grooms recently asked an elder to tell her how the water is receding and how the land is drying up.

    Marlene Grooms grew up speaking Chipewyan in the fly-in community of Lutselk'e, N.W.T. (Samantha Stuart Photography)

    "And the elder says, 'There's hardly any land animals, too. It's probably because we've got the effects from down south,'" said Grooms. Then he said, "Oh, that's what they call 'climate change.'"

    The elder told Grooms he learns things from listening to her show. And the education goes both ways.

    Grooms said she is constantly learning more about her language, and how to speak in different dialects.

    Various versions of Chipewyan are spoken across the Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, she said.

    "I just love doing what I'm doing … I love speaking my language, and actually getting paid for my language," she said with a laugh.

    Growing up in Lutselk'e, N.W.T., a small, fly-in community on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, Grooms was immersed in her language.

    "I was told before, when I was young, if you don't have your language you're nothing. You have no identity," she said.

    Now, said Grooms, the language is dying. Many young people don't understand it.

    "I think that's because their parents are not speaking to them," she said. "Even me, I made a mistake not speaking to my two youngest in Chip."

    Teaching the younger generation

    Some people feel left out, said Grooms. They've been robbed of their language by colonialism and residential schools. But, she added, it's never too late to learn.

    Grooms is now making an effort to pass on Chipewyan to her children. She will say, "let's go eat," or, "where are you going?" and get them to reply in Chipewyan.

    If they use English, Grooms won't respond.

    "I walk away, so it forces them to speak," she said. "That's kind of fun too."

    Younger relatives of her guests have asked Grooms about translating her radio show into English, but she said doing so would take something essential away from the stories.

    "When you say it in English, it's not so meaningful, but when it's in the language it's different," she said.

    "That's what I love about my language."

    Read the article in Chipewyan:

    Mobile users: View the document
    (PDF KB)
    (Text KB)
    CBC is not responsible for 3rd party content