Clarke Forum: Our Languages Belong Here: Indigenous Language Revitalization in Urban Contexts

On Tuesday, September 14, Lindsay Morcom spoke at a Clarke Forum event, Our Languages Belong Here: Indigenous Language Revitalization in Urban Contexts. She began her talk with an overview of the history of her culture and the loss of indigenous languages including the impact of the Carlisle Indian School. While speaking, she frequently would speak her native language; hearing it as well as seeing it spelled on her screen was powerful because it was so unfamiliar. As someone who knows very little about indigenous languages, I was astonished by the variety of languages that are spoken. There are two hundred and ninety known languages, 57 language families, and 28 language isolates, which means that they are completely unique languages. In comparison, Europe only has about 20-60 languages within their 4  language families, and there is only 1 language isolate. This difference in variety was quite surprising and throughout the rest of Morcom’s presentation she emphasized the power of speaking languages to keep them alive.

Morcom explained that although she is not a native speaker, she has found it to be her calling to honor her indigenous language and to “breathe life” into it by using it frequently. Her enjoyment of language partially comes from the community that it builds. In her small Canadian community, their indigenous language has brought the community a sense of identity. Her children attend school at a “Language Nest,” which was a new term to me and encompasses the idea of immersion for children to learn a language while they are still young enough to absorb it quickly. Morcom cited evidence that the self-esteem of students within immersion programs that honor their cultural heritage is much higher, as is their likelihood of success. There is a sense of empowerment and pride as a result of such immersive programs and a pervasive idea that diversity is a strength. The impact language nests have on the community have made revitalization efforts look optimistic, with a bright future.

Our history of colonialization is bleak and there is no denying its continuing impact. Morcom spoke of the high mortality rate because of the abusive and harmful nature of the residential school system between 1876 and 1996 as a means of forced assimilation. It was eye opening to me as an audience member to see just how recently such an oppressive institution was operating. Morcom described how language can be used as a tool; concepts such as the boundaries of a nation-state are colonialist concepts that inhibit the permeation of language across borders. She discussed how using the colonizer’s language has been made necessary, but that it is the responsibility of people to continue using their languages so that they will not be lost in the future. There are also complications with bringing indigenous languages to a greater audience because the standardization of languages using the roman alphabet is a colonizing concept. Revitalization efforts are  very important and must navigate colonialist legacies and norms to continue the  decolonizing process.

Morcom described how indigenous spirituality is a lived experience. Living in such a way is an important part of keeping the culture and the language alive. She discussed how there are indigenous folks who practice both indigenous and settler religions, folks who practice only indigenous religion, and those who only practice settler religions. Within the language nest, the teachers tend to be indigenous people who are committed to indigenous language, culture, and spirituality. It is important that language revitalization initiatives are led by indigenous people and that they are taught collaboratively, so that the sense of empowerment and pride is continued by the next generation.

During the question and answer session after Morcom’s presentation, there was a question asked about the use of slang in indigenous languages. Morcom explained how in indigenous languages speakers tend to make plays on words and they can manipulate the language in a beautiful and intellectual way. She also talked about how there are variations between dialects, which l was able to relate to from taking Spanish for many years because, depending on the circumstances or region, Spanish speakers will drop certain letters in words. As a second language learner, I can understand the importance of practicing a language and dedicating time to its learning. As an audience member, I can attest to the fact that the way in which Morcom was able to reach her audience was profound. I was struck by the bravery of one student who asked Morcom how to navigate the feeling of grief when language was lost because she had experienced it in Hawaii. Morcom’s connection and love of language was inspiring and her determination to “breathe life” into language was not lost to her audience.

Written by Ellen McInnes ’22, WGRC student worker

September 27, 2021