Language Learning: a personal journey – Jolene McDonald, Guest Blogger

Drin Gwiinzii shilakut (good day, my people),

My journey to learn the Dinjii Zhu’ Ginjik (Gwich’in language) has been slow and sporadic, not slow and steady, like I wish it was. I no longer feel bad about this though. I’ve come to understand that it is not my fault that I don’t know my language. It was something that was forcefully removed from my people. Plus, I live in a society that does not value my language. It is what it is. Do I wish I could fluently speak my language? Yes. Do I wish I had this significant part of my identity intact? Of course. Do I want to see the world through the eyes of my ancestors? Absolutely. I just don’t see the value in being angry about the injustice of it all. Maybe anger is the missing ingredient, I don’t know.

What I do know is that I love my language, whether I speak it fluently or not. 

Let me walk you through my language learning journey up to this point. A community member recently told me that I spoke “real good Gwich’in” as a baby. I obviously don’t remember this but it makes me happy to know that I was exposed to the language at a young age. I know it’s important to hear the tones and intonations of language in early development and I believe that these little gems are embedded in my mind for later use. Hai’ choo for that. I tried to provide my daughter these same experiences as a baby by playing Gwich’in language CDs for her narrated by Gwich’in Elders. Shiyeets’i’ has not had the privilege of growing up in Teetl’it Zheh as I did. She is definitely much of my motivation to learn and a part of my language learning journey.

I was an adult when I realized the importance of my language. Interestingly enough, it took a western post-secondary education to open my eyes. When my interest in learning my language was first piqued, I tried to recall and use all the Gwich’in language I could remember. What I realized was that most of what I remembered was what I was taught in school by my Gwich’in language teachers. Of course, I also remembered the common words and phrases used in my community such as edjeii (scary) or avaa (sore). I learned too, that I didn’t know the English words for some words I had been using my whole life, like nakal, which I later learned was cloudberry. I always thought it was knuckle (partly because of its shape and size) but nakal is actually the Gwich’in word for the berry. When I discovered my passion for my language, I began doing most of my school assignments on the Gwich’in language. I wrote papers and did projects to learn about my language, but I still was not learning to speak very much. This’s still the case today. 

My daughter and I use Gwich’in greetings daily and we have a language jar we fill with marbles (when we remember) when we use a Gwich’in phrase. When the jar is full we celebrate with an activity we chose together. To help us learn, we bug my aunt and grandmother for phrases and proper pronunciation. We also use the Gwich’in Alpha app and the Gwich’in dictionaries. I’m thankful for those who are willing to help and for our resources. Without, we would have nothing. My daughter and I have finally begun labelling things around the house in Gwich’in so we are prompted to use the Gwich’in word instead of the English word. My Newfie husband has added some Gwich’in words and phrases to his vocabulary as well. Together we are learning one word or phrase at a time.

While I was in school, I was able to take some linguistics courses through the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute(CILLDI) where I learned some things that have helped me in learning my language. I learned grammar rules such as Gwich’in pronouns – she/he/we/they, which is pretty important when you want to have a conversation about her or him or them. My biggest takeaway from CILLDI though was that I have a long way to go. There is so much to learn and thankfully, I love learning.

After finishing my degree the perfect opportunity to work in Indigenous Languages presented itself, just like a caribou presents itself for the hunter. It was an opportunity I could not pass up. I was passionate about all I had been learning about language and I felt like the luckiest woman in the world. I could continue to learn about language and perhaps even have opportunities to learn my language. Plus, I’d be given the chance to create opportunities for others to learn. As it turns out, I am still mostly learning ABOUT language. I do learn a bit of Gwich’in by working on different Gwich’in initiatives for the territory though. Through my job I am now taking the Certificate in Aboriginal Language Revitalization program through UVic and Aurora College, which inspired me to put one of my language learning ideas into action. I started a Walk to Tuk team with the hopes that a team of interested language learners would get together and walk and talk in the language regularly. It hasn’t yet evolved into what I envisioned, but the seed has been planted and it’s a great learning experience. Turns out people are pretty busy. Common thread I’m noticing in what keeps people from learning their language. Where can you fit it in? When you fit it in, is it enough? Is immersion the only way? I think so. 

For now, slowly and sporadically it goes. I learn bits and pieces here and there or I practice hard for awhile then it drops off and I pick it back up again later on. It’s hard. It’s hard when I live in a city not surrounded by the language. It’s hard when I spend the majority of my day learning ABOUT language, but not actually learning to speak. It’s hard when evenings are short and the to do list is long. It’s hard to make learning my language a priority when I live in a world where it is not a priority. I’ll keep puttering along though, learning bit by bit. Becoming more and more of myself as I continue to regain what is rightfully mine, the language of my ancestors, the language of love pumping through my veins.

One day, maybe I’ll be fluent like they were.

Jolene McDonald

Teetl’it Gwich’in 

Teetl’it Zheh

Jolene McDonald is a Teetl’it Gwich’in from Teetl’it Zheh (Fort McPherson), Northwest Territories. She is currently working in the field of Indigenous Languages and Education after completing her Bachelor of Education Degree through the Yukon Native Teacher Education Program at Yukon College. Jolene is also a yoga teacher and yogi to the core, having practiced yoga for over 10 years and having taught it for the last eight years. She completed her yoga teacher training through the World Conscious Yoga Family in Edmonton, AB and Rishikesh, India. Jolene loves both teaching and learning, in all areas of her life, and believes that the two are mutually inclusive. She is currently exploring her passion of writing and has published one short story so far called Hugs From Home, a story about her love for her community of Teetl’it Zheh, printed in the book Hug Someone You Love today, a compilation of short stories about the power of hugs. 

3 thoughts on “Language Learning: a personal journey – Jolene McDonald, Guest Blogger”

  1. Kwe’
    I loved reading your story! Language is life and it holds so many of our teachings. I’m trying to learn my language (Mi’kmaw) and even though I’m a learner… I sometimes feel disappointed that I may never become a fluent speaker (not many people speak the language close to me). Yet… like you, I love my language no matter if I become fluent or I just learn a little. Wela’lin (thank you) for sharing your story.

    Liked by 2 people

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