Meet 3 Ontarians who discovered it's never too late to learn the language of your ancestors

For many, understanding culture starts with learning the language of their ancestors. Here's how some are starting that journey later in life.

Reconnecting with one's culture can often begin with learning a language. Here's how some are starting out.

Lindsay Hachey, the manager of the EarlyON Indigenous Language and Family Program in Toronto, says when parents learn alongside their children, it helps keep the language alive. (Laura Pedersen/CBC)

On a cloudy, chilly day at Riverdale Farm, several families take part in an effort to revitalize Ianguages that have long been in danger of disappearing. 

Lindsay Hachey is arranging clipboards on a table with words written in Ojibway and Mohawk for the teachers to hand out. They'll help both the parents and children learn how to describe the objects and animals they'll see on the tour, which is the first language walk of its kind for the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.

Hachey, the manager of the EarlyON Indigenous Language and Family Program, says activities like it can help families learn the languages of their ancestors together. 

"What we found is that there was such a gap between generations not knowing their language," she said during a phone interview with CBC Toronto. Hachey says that's why it's important to have parents learn along with the kids. 

"It's something that they can do at home. It's something they can do when they're participating in the classes," she said. "But it is definitely something that needs to happen in order to guarantee the success of learning the languages and teaching it to the little ones."

She says for Indigenous families to reclaim their culture, it's important to start with learning their languages. 

"The language was always based on knowledge of the land," she said. "I always like to say there are special codes in the language that activate one's DNA in reclaiming and remembering who they are."

WATCH| This program is helping parents and children learn Mohawk and Ojibway together:

This language learning program is helping parents and children learn Mohawk and Ojibway together

2 years ago
Duration 2:58
For a group of language learners with the EarlyON Indigenous Language and Family Program, a walk through Riverdale Farm provides hands-on education. During the program’s first language walk at the farm, parents and their children got a chance to practice Mohawk and Ojibway alongside each other while out in nature. This is the seventh installment of a CBC Toronto series called Rediscovering Culture, which takes a look at how people in the GTA are reconnecting with, rediscovering and reclaiming their cultural roots.

Dr. How Hoong Au: Learning Mandarin at 75

Dr. How Hoong Au was born in Malaysia to parents from mainland China. His family figured it would be better for him to learn in English than Mandarin or Cantonese. 

That left Au without much knowledge of any Chinese language. He knew enough colloquial Cantonese to converse, but he didn't know how to read or write it.

At the age of 75, Au now attends the Toronto Mandarin School alongside his grandchildren, who know the language quite well. He's learning to speak, read, and write. 

"This is an opportunity to be able to connect with my grandchildren by speaking Mandarin in some instances

Au says knowing another language should be considered a gift and the learning process has been a very rewarding experience. He says those who are considering learning languages from their cultural roots should do so. 

"You should think [of it]  as an opportunity to open your mind and go back to your roots where you can live up to your spirit of your generation and your ancestors." 

Marla Kishimoto: Hard to reconnect without language

Being half Japanese and half white, Marla Kishimoto had always been fascinated by Japanese culture, but she never made much of an attempt to learn more about her roots. 

That all changed during a trip to Japan in 2018.

"When I came back, I decided the next time I go, I want to be able to communicate," said Kishimoto, 35, who lives in Toronto. "I signed up for actual classes and really started trying in earnest to learn the language. 

Marla Kishimoto started taking Japanese language classes upon returning from a trip to Japan in 2018. (Marla Kishimoto)

She says much of what she knew about her family history centred on her grandparents' time in internment camps during the Second World War and their eventual move to Toronto. But slowly, she's been learning more about the details of that time. She's now tracked down records of property that was taken from her grandfather when he was interned by the Canadian government. 

Kishimoto says she felt it was important to learn more about her roots and her language because after the war, many Japanese people tried to play down their heritage.

"They were kind of encouraged to mingle outside the community," she said. 

"My dad and his siblings married very white people ... And I think a lot of that culture has been lost just because it wasn't really something that the rest of the country looks positively on,"  she added.

Marla, left, alongside her mother, brother, and father, left to right. She says she's slowly been learning more about her family by tracking down records. (Marla Kishimoto)

"Having lost language and all the little cultural bits, I feel like now is the time to reconnect to those, now that we can."

Kishimoto started taking classes at the Japan Foundation in 2018 and continued for two years. She has since started practising the language with some Japanese friends and has planned a trip to Japan for next year. 

She says while there are many ways to reconnect to culture, language felt like the right gateway for her, especially when it comes to travelling to Japan. 

"So much of the history [is] so rooted in the language that I think learning the language really opens up a lot more avenues."

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