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The Challenges of Learning & Teaching an Indigenous Language in 2020

It’s 3:30pm, School’s out.

  • After a typical full day of school, you might expect kids to pour out of doors and pile onto buses. But kids are not the only ones who are leaving.

About 20 adults leave quietly from the Kanien’keháka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (KORLCC) located in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, south of the Island of Montreal.

They drive their cars and empty the otherwise packed parking lot to join their families or go to their jobs.

Despite the quiet, there’s a unique sense of urgency. This adult school teaches a full-time immersion course in the Indigenous language of Kanien’kéha, or Mohawk.

Kanien’kéha is the most spoken Iroquoian language and is estimated to have only 2,350 speakers, concentrated in Ontario and Quebec, according to the 2016 StatsCan Census.

The sun begins to set behind the Kanien’keháka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center in the Indigenous community of Kahnawake, south of Montreal.

In Short: Across Canada, there are more than 70 Indigenous languages spoken across 12 language families, all of which are different from one another in numerous ways, but most of which are becoming threatened as there are fewer and fewer fluent speakers.

First-language speakers of Indigenous languages are passing away, and some community groups fear they could take the language with them without the proper immersion courses available to the community.

  • In Kahnawake specifically, fewer than 200 first-language speakers of Kanien’kéha remain, estimated ​Karonhiióstha Shea Sky, a graduate of the language program and the cultural development officer at KORLCC.
  • With their population of over 8,000 people, it means less than 2.5 per cent of the community are first-language Kanien’kéha speakers.

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A Generational Gap

Families are starting to see a two-generation gap (between speakers of the language),” explained Tehokwiráthe Cross, a teacher at the KORLCC. 

This generational gap is mainly as a result of the residential school system.

  • The Canadian government funded the residential school system from the 1880s to the late 20th century.
  • The system forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families with the objective of assimilating them into mainstream Canadian society.
  • The system removed and isolated the children from their homes, cultures, traditions, and beliefs.
  • The damaging consequences of the system continue to have lasting effects on residential school survivors and their descendants, including the loss of language.

While many elders have helped communities in the preservation of Kanien’kéha, Dawn Martin, 24, a second-year student at Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa language school based in the Six Nations of the Grand River, near Brantford, Ont., has observed that some have been reluctant or unwilling to speak or teach as a result of the trauma from residential schools.

“I hear multiple people ‘oh my dad didn’t want to teach me’, ‘my mom didn’t want to teach me’, ‘they didn’t want me to get beat up or bullied or whatever else’,” said Martin.

  • All of Martin’s grandparents went to residential schools.
  • Her mom, who is half Anishinaabe and half Haudenosaunee/Mohawk, tried to learn Anishinaabe, but her father did not want to teach her or talk about their language and culture.
  • Adversely, Martin’s father, who is 70 years old, grew up with parents who spoke Kanien’kéha and Gayogohono Cayuga to him.
  • While her father learned Indigenous languages as his mother-tongue, Martin said he lost the languages later on, after he was left with no one with whom to converse.

A Cultural Touchstone

Language posters are taped to the wall in the halls of the Kanien’keháka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center in Kahnawake. They translate terms for winter sports into Kanien’kéha.

Language is imperative to Indigenous communities since it is directly tied to their culture, explained Kahrhó:wane McComber, a teacher at the KORLCC. 

(Language) collectively reinforces the value of our culture where there has been systematic and intentional work by the government to de-value it and to get ourselves to de-value it,” said McComber. 

Cross, a teacher at the KORLCC explained that learning Kanien’kéha provides him with a better sense of identity and empowers students and the community.

“It empowers them to identify closer with their culture and who they are through the eyes of the language, through the eyes of the people,” said Cross.

Losing the language entirely could result in losing an important part of the culture.

“Losing a first-language speaker, regardless of their merits or their status, is always very difficult for us. It marks another step towards us losing our language entirely,” said Jordan Brant, a Kanien’kéha teacher at Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa. 


Learning Rather than Losing

While there is a growing fear of first-language speakers of Indigenous languages passing away and taking the languages with them, perhaps surprisingly, the overall rate of second-language acquisition has been on the rise according to the 2016 Census on Aboriginal languages and the role of second-language acquisition.

  • For Kanien’kéha specifically, the survey shows that the mother-tongue continuity rate, referring to people who speak the language at home with their children on a regular basis, is almost 56% and the second-language acquisition rate about 59% across Canada.

“Since that survey was taken, I’d say we lost quite a few first-language speakers,” said Jordan Brant, a Kanien’kéha teacher at Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa. 

“Losing a first-language speaker, regardless of their merits or their status, is always very difficult for us. It marks another step towards us losing our language entirely.”


A Different Approach

Jordan Brant, a Kanien’kéha teacher at Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa, explained that to learn the language, different approaches are needed, especially since more and more community members want to learn in adulthood and become fluent.

However, experts, students, and teachers point to fluency as being directly tied to using language daily.

  • Unfortunately, speaking outside of class and using complex words and phrases on a regular basis does not happen everywhere, explained Martin, even after adult students graduate from immersion language programs.

“The (Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa) program is 21 years old and there’s over 100 speakers that have graduated from the program. Are they all talking to one another? No,” said Martin.

This problem does not have a quick fix, said Jessica Coon, a professor of linguistics at McGill University.

  • She explained the present lack of resources for Indigenous language learners is the result of a number of different factors rooted in colonialism.

“If I want to learn Spanish, I can get on Duolingo,” explained Coon. “I can use an app and maybe, most importantly, I can travel to a country where I can be surrounded by Spanish, and that is a really big difference,” she said.


Immersion Requires Opportunity

The Kanien’kéha teachers at the KORLCC in Kahnawake. (from right to left) Kahrhó:wane McComber, Tehokwiráthe Cross, Ro’nikonhkátsk Norton, Atewenniiótha Jacobs.

Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa tries to create their own immersive environment in the classroom by requiring students to complete 2,000 hours of class time.

  • Unfortunately, speaking in Kanien’kéha requires many more hours in addition to class hours if students expect to reach high levels of fluency, said Brant.

We estimate maybe around four to 5000 hours to become an advanced level speaker of the language,” he said.

Unfortunately, Martin explained this is not feasible for every student since only a couple of students in her class have speakers to engage with, and the rest of them are without resources. She explains that Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa is not fully an immersion program.

It’s immersion 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Some students in the class are excelling and they become great speakers, but most of the time those speakers are the ones that have the opportunity to study on their own in their homes for six to eight hours after school and that’s not the case for every student that comes through there.

Martin has been pushing for the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory to establish a community space speakers can access from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Martin believes this could create a sustainable solution for learners trying to get extracurricular speaking opportunities.

“There’s a lot of people wanting (more resources), but at the same time all I ever hear is ‘ain’t got time or money’,” said Martin.

  • Engaging in adult language courses is an expensive commitment, explained Karonhiióstha Shea Sky, a graduate of the language program and the cultural development officer at KORLCC.

“Most people who go through the program either go two years with barely any pay or have to go on social assistance,” said Sky.

Karonhiióstha Shea Sky, a graduate of the language program and the current cultural development officer at KORLCC.

While students at KORLCC receive funding administered by Kahnawake’s employment center and education center, and Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa’s students receive stipends, they often do not meet students’ needs.

“The biggest factor in one becoming a speaker of their Indigenous language is the opportunity to do so,” explained Brant.


A Public Commitment

To help provide communities with this opportunity, Marc Miller, the Minister of Indigenous Services, explained that the Liberal Government is allocating $1,500 per child on-reserve for language and culture, as well as increasing its contributions six-fold to provide resources for immersion classes for adults.

Miller is particularly close to the issue of Indigenous language revitalization since he is among the few non-Indigenous Canadians learning Kanien’kéha.

“I did it a bit as a personal challenge, as something that I really enjoyed doing every day,” said Miller. “It’s helped me in understanding something that I certainly didn’t as a non-Indigenous Canadian.”

Through a number of speeches in Parliament in Kanien’kéha, Miller aimed to bring attention to the importance of respecting and valuing Indigenous communities and culture

“It’s something he took very seriously,” explained Brant. “In my experience that’s the first time that’s happened, where it hasn’t been a simple land recognition, or a few comforting words.”

While some believe Miller’s commitment and public support is useful to publicly promote Indigenous culture on the national-level, others argue that the already extremely limited language resources should not be used by non-Indigenous people who do not give back directly to the community.


Bottom Line: A new, community-based approach to language learning is necessary for Indigenous language revitalization.

It can’t be a top-down approach, it can’t be ‘oh the government will give so much dollars for resources’, or ‘so much dollars for infrastructure’, it needs to come grassroots. It needs to be community members sitting around a table and saying this is what we need for our community, and that’s not happening,” said Martin.

 “With residential schools, the tax system and whatever you want to blame, colonialism in general, seven-generation to get here it’s gonna take 16 generations to get out of it.”


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