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Listen up! New audio series highlights passion of Indigenous language speakers

A stop sign in English, French and Inuktut syllabics is seen in Iqaluit, Nunavut. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Learning any language is hard, but imagine trying to learn a language without access to fluent speakers or tools like Duolingo at your fingertips.

Well, that’s what its like for many Indigenous people trying to reconnect with their culture and learn their language.

A new audio project called Words and Culture hopes to expose listeners to a variety of Indigenous languages and make that learning a little easier.

“Shows like this will introduce audiences to those language keepers, those speakers and hopefully it will make more people willing to reach out,” said Kim Wheeler, the shows executive producer.

“Learning language is really scary, right? It’s frightening! People will tell stories like ‘I’m learning to speak, people are laughing at me’ which makes them not want to do it.

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“But here we have an offering where you can listen and get some basics in the privacy of your home.”

The show tackles five different language groups in its first season — Haudenosaunee, Cree, Athabaskan, Anishinaabe and Inuktitut — with six episodes dedicated to each language group and a new episode airing each week — online and on the radio.

Click to play video: 'Canada’s 1st graduates in Indigenous Language Fluency'
Canada’s 1st graduates in Indigenous Language Fluency

The episodes are approachable, with language learners of all levels at the helm, each week focusing on a different topic with words and phrases you can learn and practice.

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The Haudenosaunee portion is hosted by January Rogers, and in the first episode she speaks with Amos Key Jr., a knowledge keeper, about the next generation of Six Nations language learners — who he hopes will be fully bilingual.

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“Bilingual of whatever language, English and Mohawk, English and Cayuga, Onondaga and English and vice versa,” he said. “It’s exciting we can draft a blueprint of where we’d like this community to be in the next 50 years.”

Click to play video: 'Month of Giving Back: First Nations Education Foundation'
Month of Giving Back: First Nations Education Foundation

Indigenous language preservation, revitalization and promotion has been gaining momentum — the United Nations declared 2022-2032 the decade of Indigenous languages and Canada committed to supporting Indigenous language revitalization and accelerating the implementation of the Indigenous Languages Act.

“I love the fact that language is so big right now and it feels like everybody wants to learn the language,” said Wheeler. “I think [Words and Culture] is a really good introduction to find out more about not only our language, but our people and our knowledge keepers.”
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There are over 70 distinct Indigenous languages across the country falling into 12 language families. Prior to the Indian Residential School system, Indigenous languages were widely spoken, many Indigenous people growing up only knowing their language.

But with residential schools that set out to “kill the Indian in the child,” a communities ability to pass on their language was also diminished.

“What I’m learning as we go through this is that the language feels like it has skipped a generation, and that’s the generation after residential schools,” said Wheeler. “So the children of survivors, it has skipped them.

“The children of the children of the survivors, they’re the ones that it really feels like they’re picking up the language and that does give me hope.”

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Interactive First Peoples’ Map goes far beyond geography

Words and Culture is funded by SiriusXM Canada through the Community Radio Fund of Canada who approached Wheeler with the idea of creating an audio project that uplifts Indigenous languages.

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“Each episode we had a theme that I wanted to hit, but I also wanted the hosts — who speak or are learning the language from their nation — let me know who they want to talk to and who is important in their community,” explained Wheeler.

With hopes of doing a second season that focuses on different Indigenous languages, Wheeler said it all depends on funding.

“There is no show out there right now that focuses specifically on language and multiple languages that’s airing across the country,” she said.

“(The hosts) are all so inspiring about how they learned or how they’re learning their language — we have an incredible team of hosts who are going to bring you amazing stories every week from the people who live right in their communities.

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