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Languages Are Part of Community Healing and Development

The compelling report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chronicles the suppression of Aboriginal languages by governments and churches.


The denigration of languages in residential schools (and in so many other places) was intentionally used for power and control, a way to divide communities and families, a way to disrupt economies, a way to undermine local leaders and elders, and a way to abuse children.

The impact was permanent and awful. The healing process, the commission says, must include a re-affirmation of languages. Hearing ancestral languages and learning them strengthens bonds between generations. Languages embody whole systems of knowledge and ways of interpreting the world. Language learning and language use offer opportunities for good employment. Languages affirm the value of every person. Languages help create a sense of place.

I am struck by how the outlooks of Cape Breton communities are so often tied to the survival of languages, even in non-Aboriginal communities that were not directly hit by the ravages of the residential schools. Let me please be clear: I am not drawing a parallel between the residential schools and what happened to non-Aboriginal languages.  But I am making an argument for the dignity and value of languages.

In places where the Acadian French and the Gaelic languages were actively discouraged or suppressed to the point of near-assimilation, or in older urban immigrant communities on the island where people were mocked for using their languages outside their home or church, there is often a lingering hurt and even guilt.

On the other hand, in places where ancestral languages are being passed on to the next generation, despite the obstacles — communities like Eskasoni, Cheticamp, or clusters of Gaelic revitalization — we also see a resurgence of community spirit and even entrepreneurship. We see interesting, homegrown experiments in development. We see destination marketing (tourism promotion) that is warm and authentic. These communities would probably be poorer and less cohesive if not for their languages.

With my own ancestral language, Polish, I observe something similar in Cape Breton. There is the pain of language loss in previous generations but also the power of resilience over time and in our time: the pride of still cultivating the language in church and community events, using the language to welcome immigrants and newcomers, the friendships that develop in beginners’ language classes and in conversations between fluent and intermediate speakers, sometimes even the satisfaction of communicating with distant relatives across the ocean. Members of the community are definitely not all expected to be conversant in the language, but there’s appreciation and respect for the language.

Nor are all learners descendants of the speakers of a language. The contacts and conversations that come with learning actually help to build bridges and understanding among cultures.

It’s hard to measure the impact of such pride, but it definitely spills over into projects to improve neighbourhoods, into social cohesion and even crime prevention.

If you have some time for summer reading, may I recommend Mark Abley’s book Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages? Whatever the language, whatever the region, the reader of this captivating memoir is struck by a kind of “big-box” effect — a march toward sameness: the same language, same food, same stores, same suburbs.

That is bound to be harmful for regions outside the big cities. We will never be the centre of big industries or big head offices, but we can be a centre for Mi’kmaq or Gaelic, and the educational, cultural and even technological businesses and institutes that come with them. Some of those competencies and methods can, in turn, be helpful to other languages.

Abley finds a younger generation that gets it. And we find them in Cape Breton, too. They create spaces for learning. They try methods like TIP (total immersion plus) for adults and they create pre-school resources.  They’re designing, recording and publishing. They’re working on bringing people home to share their knowledge.

Their work makes a difference for all of us, no matter what language we speak.


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Cape Breton Post
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