Understanding her Anishinaabemowin language and culture helps shape her identity, says Jessica Shonias

When Up North host, Waubgeshig Rice, spoke with Jessica Shonias in January 2019 for the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, Shonias explained why she calls herself an accidental language teacher. She also described how understanding her Anishinaabemowin language and culture helps shape her identity.

‘Once you learn the language you understand the Anishinaabe worldview,' says Anishinaabemowin language teacher

Language teacher, Jessica Shonias, has a deep connection with Anishinaabemowin. (CBC/Waubgeshig Rice)

Jessica Shonias says she always heard her language when she was growing up but didn't understand it.

"I felt really tongue-tied like I should be able to speak back," said Shonias.

Over the last five or six years she got serious about learning her language so she could hold a conversation and understand most of what was being said to her. 

Shonias has a master's degree and a teaching degree. She says that once folks started finding out about her educational background and learned she could speak Anishinaabemowin, that was how the "accidental teacher" part happened.

"I love the language and I love the opportunity to be able to work, pay my bills doing something that I really love," she said. 

"It's great for me to be able to learn my language but if I'm not passing it on and sharing it with others, then that doesn't really solve the problem," she said. 

Different dialects from community to community . . . even from family to family.Jessica Shonias

Shonias explains that there are different dialects within the Anishinaabemowin language. "Even within the dialects it varies from community to community and I'm finding even within communities it can even vary from family to family."

"It's an Algonquin language and it's very different from English because it's, I would say, at least 85 per cent verb-based," said Shonias. "We don't have adjectives, and our words, or our verbs, are full sentences, and you can kind of build your own word once you have a better, deeper understanding of the language," she explained.

"We have really long words but they're really beautiful, descriptive action-based words," she added. 

Shonias went on to explain another difference between Anishinaabemowin and English. "We don't have gender in the traditional sense as we do in English or French, like 'le' or 'la' or 'he' or 'she'."

"A person is a person and we speak the same about a person as we do a tree or dog or anything living, whereas non-living things we would speak differently," said Shonias.

"Once you learn the language you really understand the Anishinaabe world view, Unknowingly, you start to look at the world differently," she said. 

Shonias says it's hard for her to put into words what her language means to her. "As long as I can remember I just felt such an innate, deep connection with it . . . I just understand in my core being that it's important," she said.

She also said that without having an understanding of her language, culture and ceremonies, it was very easy to believe the racist stereotypes she faced when she was in high school.

"I understand now that those things aren't true and I have more to be proud of than ashamed of," she said. "That's what the language has done for me, and I think for youth growing up that's what it can do for them too."

With files from Waubgeshig Rice