In an innovative new study, children from Chisasibi are being videotaped as a way to improve the way the Cree language is taught and absorbed at the earliest levels.
The project aims to capture on video the child’s most important learning years from ages one to six. After several years, the linguists will be able to paint a picture of the children’s progress in their journey towards proper adult grammar and vocabulary.
“We aim to make a record of the status of language development for children who are learning to speak Cree as their first language,” said Julie Brittain, a linguist at Newfoundland’s Memorial University and the overseer of the project. “There is no in-depth acquisition study for the Cree language yet, so we’re hopefully going to be able to record the language development for children from 12 months old and follow them all the way through to six years old.”
Marguerite Mackenzie, who has worked on the Cree, Naskapi and Innu languages for over 30 years, is acting as an advisor on the project.
The study began in November 2004 and will run until at least 2007. There are currently only two children involved in the project, but that number will jump to around 12 in the coming weeks.
The children will be separated into two groups, ages one to four and ages three to six.
“Linguists are interested in these types of studies because of how easily children learn languages. When you compare it to adults, children are much more adept at picking up another language,” said Brittain.
She added that many studies have been done for first language acquisition, but the Chisasibi Child Language Acquisition Study (CCLAS) is the first of its kind in Eeyou Istchee.
“At Memorial University we work with many languages, including Cree and Naskapi, so for us we thought it’d be natural to secure funding in order to conduct a first language acquisition study. We wanted to find out what strategies children apply when learning long, complicated words.”
Brittain said that there has already been a similar study done on the Inuktituk language by linguists at Boston University.
“We want to contribute to the vitality of the Cree language by doing research that has practical applications.”
Brittain and her crew, which includes Darlene Bearskin-Kitty, hope that this study will provoke change in how the Cree language is looked at and will result in the first full-time Cree speech therapist.
Bearskin-Kitty, who studied linguistics at McGill University and is a substitute teacher at the school in Chisasibi, is in charge of capturing the process on videotape.
“There are very different rules when learning Cree instead of English, such as the endings of the words,” she said. “In English there may be two or three ways to end a word but in Cree there are seven.”
Her daughter is part of the project and that was an extra incentive for getting involved. “I’d like to know what my child is learning and what words she uses,” said her proud mother.
“When I do the video with the child(ren) I also repeat the word in the correct way of what the child is trying to say. After about an hour of filming I then compress the video so it can be downloaded at Memorial University in St. John’s,” she said.
She also reiterated Brittain’s view that there is a big need for a speech therapist in the communities. “How can they diagnose a speech delay in a child if there are no Cree language speech therapists?”
If all goes well, the project could move to other communities, depending on the level of interest.
To find out more about the project, visit http://artssrv.arts.mun.ca/cclas/