Can online classes during the pandemic bring back an endangered language?

The pandemic has steered a lot of learning online, and language classes have been no exception. But learning an indigenous language with few native speakers left — such as Abenaki, spoken by Vermont’s original inhabitants — presents a unique challenge, and precarity is its own brand of pressure.

Language teachers hope that lessons learned during the pandemic will set them up for future success.

In the 1990s, when Jesse Bruchac was beginning to learn Abenaki, there were nearly 100 speakers within the Odanak community, an Abenaki reserve in Quebec. “Other than a very short list,” said Bruchac, “every single one of those people has passed away.”

Many indigenous languages across the continent have been eroded by efforts to assimilate indigenous people into mainstream society. That meant speaking the dominant language, English. Pressure came from outside the community and also from within, as Abenaki parents saw more opportunities for their children if they learned English.

At many schools, the use of indigenous languages was not allowed, and teachers would punish students for speaking them.

“It’s very hard to keep a language that’s been beaten down for generations going because of the psychological impact it has on the community,” said Conor McDonough Quinn. Quinn is a linguist who has been teaching Abenaki alongside Bruchac at the University of Southern Maine for the past four years. This is the case for Abenaki, said Quinn, and also for his own ancestral language, Gaelic.

For some Abenaki families, Bruchac said, “the value had been lost. It was not seen as an opportunity. People only seeing Abenaki as holding them back has been a big part of the history.”

That’s been changing in recent years, as a new generation is reclaiming the language. But Abenaki is a challenging language to learn, in part because it is so different from English, but also because opportunities for immersion are limited or nonexistent.

“There’s no place you can go where you can be immersed in it, where it’s the dominant language,” Quinn said. “That option just doesn’t exist.

That is the problem that language courses offered at Middlebury College attempt to solve. This past summer, the college hosted a pilot program of an Abenaki course, taught by Bruchac and Quinn, where students enrolled in a two-week immersive course.

Read more: VT Digger

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