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The Importance Of Reviving And Retaining Our Languages

Margaret Cote

A person does not have to be able to speak an Indian language to be an Indian, but it certainly helps. A person's Indian ancestry is what makes him an Indian, but it is what one knows about his Indian culture that will make him proud to be Indian. Unless one has pride in himself it will be difficult to accept himself, and any areas of life where he lacks pride will be shaded by doubts, fears, confusion and failure. It is only in this modern society that these things are felt, because it is a nervous, unsure, fast-paced world of change where people often become enslaved by the technology. This modern world makes better and better machines but it does not make better people. I have yet to feel doubt, fear, confusion or failure when in the presence of a cultured Indian. Our Indian ancestors already knew what made better people and it is this quality that now makes us secure in the presence of cultured Indian people. They could be successful businessmen, academic professionals, or traditional quaint people living on the reserve, the materialism does not matter, because that special quality is held by them. Missing in their attitudes and behavior is competitiveness, exploitation, or the grasping of materialism, for within their philosophy of life stand the values of sharing, cooperation, respect, harmony and humility. A cultured Indian confidently holds these beliefs as fundamental and, as such, will shed the pettiness, the superficial, the temporary, like a duck sheds water. These people never hide from their responsibilities. They are never lazy or apathetic; nor do they whine or point fingers of blame. They never cease to learn. Their confidence and satisfaction with themselves is complete and with this they hold the ability to cope and succeed in any environment they choose. The humility of these people is often misinterpreted as weakness, but those who take time will often see the strength and greatness of these people.

The modern technological world is only temporary and the traditional Indian values are permanent, for it is these values that hold the survival of the Indian people. This is not to say that Indian culture exclusively holds the answer to the survival of a people, for many of the world's cultures and many of the world's peoples hold the same values. For Indians today who are floundering in modern society seeking answers, the answers lie at home with the elders. It is what they know that, if learned, will reduce the floundering, will develop the pride and the confidence needed. To learn from the elders, one must understand their message. To do that one must know the language.

Most of our younger Indian people no longer know their Indian languages, and there is a need for them to learn them. Like any scholar aiming himself at some professional goal, to learn the specific intricacies of that profession, he must acquire the terminology of that profession. Being a professional in some ways is really a state of mind. Similarly for a young Indian to learn the specific details of Indianness, he must acquire the terminology of that culture to understand its message. Therefore, being an Indian is also a state of mind.

An Indian language, like any man-made tool, is created to serve a purpose. To survive, any man-made tool must be useful and necessary to those who adopt it; must be widely accepted and used; and must withstand competition with other tools which offer to serve the same purpose. If any tool no longer serves its purpose; is no longer useful and necessary; and does not withstand competition; then that tool will become obsolete or will reduce in its importance (perhaps, like the bow and arrow). Similarly our Indian languages, if they are not treated correctly, can suffer the same fate.

A language, like a modern machine, is a collection of parts. Each part can become obsolete if a better part is created. Many Indian words become obsolete because new modern words displace them. If enough parts of any machine are replaced then the whole machine itself will change and likely serve a new purpose, forgetting its old purpose.

The Importance Of Reviving And Retaining Our Languages

Margaret Cote

little girl In this way, we might see our Indian languages. So many parts of our Indian languages may have changed to suit new purposes that the languages in their traditional form are becoming obsolete and its purpose forgotten.

Those parts of our Indian languages that have survived did so because no new words can replace them, and we will wear them with pride like badges of honour.

Because of the pressures of modern life, to adapt, we have often thoughtlessly given up some of our major values when we gave up the words to effectively express them. We gave up these values, we gave up our strength to survive. Too many of us now depend on someone else's strength for our survival.

Our Indian languages are very important to us. Because the language puts us in touch with our elders who can teach us, and because it is our way of maintaining what is important, not only to us but to everyone.

To revive and retain our ways through our Indian languages must be carried out in full seriousness and full awareness of the challenge. An Indian language program, be it on an Indian reserve, or at an educational institution should not be treated as a popular fad or a temporary band-aid. It should not be designed to replace English but to sit side by side with it in equal importance, serving its own unique purpose.

A good language program should begin with the children at birth, by encouraging the parents to use the Indian language in their homes, and the use of the language should be carried on until death. A good language program should not select special students, but should include all. It should not be simply an exercise of learning sounds, pronunciations and vocabulary, but one in which values, principles, and Indian philosophy are reflected. Students should also be taught the cultural contexts of the words and phrases they are being taught. A good language program should lead to a constant refinement and updating of its parts so that it "keeps us with the time"; while maintaining the permanent good values. It should inspire further curiousity and give opportunity to learning.

The need for all Indians to survive in modern life may undermine even the best planned Indian language program, but if we, as Indians, sincerely believe that the strength of our ancestors is the strength we need now, then their teachings which lie hidden in the language will inspire us to overcome the challenges and bring our Indian languages back forever.

In order for the Indian languages to survive they must be taught in schools from nursery school to university. Parents should also be encouraged to speak their Indian language to their children, and to teach their children the traditional Indian values.

The role of the elders in all aspects of Indian education is also very important. They are the most important resource to gaining an understanding of Indian values and traditions. They are the ones who have earned respect for their wisdom and moral perseverance. Elders are knowledgeable in ways of human conduct, they are spiritual leaders. Those who peform religious ceremonies have been entrusted with the right to do so by others before them. The Indian language is always spoken at these ceremonies, in order for these ceremonies to be passed on, they must be passed on to someone who is not only interested and believes in it, but who also understands and speaks the Indian language. The type of language that is used in these ceremonies is not the everyday conversational language. The spiritual Indian language is a much higher, more sophisticated form. If the Indian languages do not survive then these ceremonies will not survive either, and a very important part of our Indian culture will be lost and forgotten.

The elders should be employed in schools to serve as counsellors and advisors to students and staff, because it is their experience and philosophy of life that can ensure the survival of the Indian culture.

The values which make Indian people a great race are not written in any book. They are found in the language, the history, the legends, and the culture of Canada's Indian people. Indian behavior is shaped by these values. Indian educational institutions should provide a setting where these values are honoured. Some of these values are; self-reliance, respect for personal freedom, generosity, sharing, wisdom, cooperation, harmony, humility, respect for nature, and respect for self and others. All of these have a special place in the Indian way of life. While these values can be understood and interpreted in different ways by different cultures, they are all transmitted through language.

Language is the life-blood of a culture, when the last speaker of a language dies, the language dies too. This is why every effort should be made by Indian people to revive and retain our Indian languages.