Language student Tyler Taylor with teacher Jeff Monague.

Language student Tyler Taylor with teacher Jeff Monague.

By Sharon Weatherall

BARRIE –When he has completed the two year Anishnaabemowin Language Program at Georgian College’s Barrie Campus, Tyler Taylor hopes to share what he has learned with his community.

“Not a lot of our people speak or know the language, but a lot of people want to learn so I am taking the course so I can teach in my community,” says Taylor, a Georgina Island First Nation citizen who is one of 15 students in the new language program which is unique to Georgian College and Ontario.

When asked how they were enjoying the program thus far students Cheryl Offord and Cheryl Jamieson responded, “gchi  nendam gwa noonga maa yaa yan” which means “we are happy to be here”.

Jamieson explained that the shorter an English word is, the longer it is in Anishnaabemowin. Offord says the teachers make it so students are learning at a “baby steps” level, starting with a person themself and then branching out to their family, community and the world.  The two Beausoleil First Nation women say everyone (in class) is now at a level where they can fluently understand pieces of the language and put small phrases and sentences together. They have learned how to introduce themselves and say where they are from, introduce their family members, talk on the phone, and other practical but key communications.

“Since I have been coming here I am more able to understand my grandmother who speaks mostly Anishnaabemowin,” says Offord. “The teachers here are very understanding and patient. We get a lot of support. We are not just learning the language but the culture and a history lesson too.”

The program which began in September, 2013 combines both culture and technical aspects and was ten years in the making. It involves teaching students the “nuts and bolts” of the language during the first year, while the second year is more program planning and focusing on how to use the language. Elders and special guest speakers play an important role during frequent class visits.

Participants may be doing it for personal reasons, to use in the home or teach in the community, or they could end up employed perhaps  as a language co-ordinator, or some other position.

“Oral languages are great but you need to get it written down,” says Rebecca Wakelin, who heads Anishnaabemowin Language Programming –Aboriginal Studies and Health at the Barrie Campus.”There had to be a vocational goal at the end that asks ‘what can you do with the language?’ Basically we are creating a program for a job that doesn’t exist which is the buzz for Georgian College.”

Wakelin designed the course in collaboration with instructor Jeff Monague, a Beausoleil citizen who has been teaching Native language for 14 years to every grade from Junior Kindergarten to post-secondary. Monague thinks the program is going very well. He says the vision is different and a standard western model is not being used so there have been a few bumps which have been adapted to by staff and students.

“It was developed for us to get a dying language back into the community so activities here are geared to that,” he says. “I had students walk in here with limited or no knowledge of the language or culture and now they can string together sentences and are using the language on a daily basis which was our goal.

That some of the students in the course will be taking the language back to their communities to share is very gratifying for Monague.

“It makes it good that we are changing the structure of the way Anishinaabe should be taught. I am very thankful that we have a college that is so supportive and a dean – Maryann Fifefield – who has that kind of vision and the will to make it work.”

Outside the classroom there is a board containing the Anishnaabemowin “Word of the Day” which says appropriately  “Biiskan Gbiiskawaagan” – “Put your coat on” and “giksinaa” –”It’s cold”. It’s the job of the Aboriginal Centre’s Sandi Pallister-Gougeon, academic program and support services officer, to come up with a new word or phrase every day to “make the language visible”.

“The Word of the Day is a touchstone — where everyone can meet,” she says. “I send it out for everyone all over Georgian College and further every day.  I try to keep it simplistic so it helps the students and provides a connection point for other students at the college and in the community all feel part of the program.”

For more information visit www.georgiancollege.ca and go to “Barrie campus”.