Learning Mohawk on your phone: Kanesatake school launches language app

A Mohawk immersion school in Kanesatake, Que., has launched an app to help students and parents with their language learning.

'We have a huge vocabulary of words that are usually not heard in other communities'

Kanehsatà:ke Mohawk is free to download on both Apple and Android devices. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

A Mohawk immersion elementary school in Kanesatake, Que, is hoping to bring language learning outside of the classroom with the launch of a new app.

Kanehsatà:ke Mohawk is a mobile phone app with a vocabulary of 500 Kanien'kéha words across 39 different categories like animals, numbers and greetings.

"I thought it would be a good way to preserve our language and have it available, not just for our students, but parents and community," said Deborah Rennie, the special needs co-ordinator at Rotiwennakéhte Ionterihwaienstáhkhwa.

Students at the school between pre-K and Grade 2 will have the app downloaded on their iPads, and parents of students in all grades are being encouraged to download it.

The app includes vocabulary lessons for a number of themed categories. (Kanehsatà:ke Mohawk)

"It's a hope that it will be a link between school and home," said Rennie.

"Unfortunately a lot of our community members, myself included, don't speak the language. We have a very rudimentary knowledge of it and it's difficult to help our children who are learning the language in school. If we're able to build up our vocabulary, we'll be able to help our kids a bit more."

Out of school and into the home

The school collaborated with the Kontinónhstats Mohawk Language Custodian Association and Tsi Ronterihwanónhnha ne Kanien'kéha Language and Cultural Center.

Hilda Nicholas, director of the cultural centre, said it's an important tool as the language is currently taught in an isolated setting within the community.

"You learn in the school," she said.

"Children go home and there is no one at home that can continue what they've learned during the day and we are just bombarded by other languages."

Who, what, where, when and why are some of the basic words that the app translates into Kanien’kéha with spelling and audio pronunciation. (Kanehsatà:ke Mohawk)

Nicholas's voice is one of many that can be heard on the app, which was developed by Las Vegas-based Thornton Media. The company has worked with more than 200 nations across the United States and Canada to develop language apps, including Speak Mohawk and Speak Cayuga released by Six Nations Polytechnic in Ontario.

The inspiration for the new app came from Speak Mohawk, with the goal to have Kanesatake's dialect of the language preserved.

Unique dialect

There are eight dialects of the Mohawk language across Quebec, Ontario and New York state. All are listed as definitely endangered according to UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger.

The app offers Kanien’kéha translations for cities and towns located around Kanesatake. (CBC)

In Kanesatake, Nicholas said there are only around 60 first language speakers left in the community. She said the dialect was important to preserve.

"Here in Kanesatake, we have a huge vocabulary of words that are usually not heard in other communities," she said.

"Kanesatake has the oldest dialect, so for us, it is very important that we keep our way of talking. We respect the dialect differences and how each community talks about different things, but being the oldest community with the oldest language, we surely want to keep it."


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.