New animation tool helps super charge return of Mi’kmaw language to the community

Thursday, December 21st, 2023 1:07pm


Image Caption

Pip and Mimi are characters in the new Talking Planet Mi'kmaw language series.


“It's full here. How come you're lonely?’ And he said, ‘I miss speaking my language.’ And I was like, ‘Wow. Okay.’ So that's when you talk about the spirit of the language.” — Rosie Sylliboy, executive director of Mawita’mk Society
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

It may seem like an unusual connection: an organization that works with disabled Indigenous adults getting involved in animated videos to teach the Mi’kmaw language, also called Mi’kmaq,  to children and their families.

But it’s a perfect fit, says Rosie Sylliboy, executive director of Mawita’mk Society, a charitable organization that operates homes for the disabled in We’koqma’q on Cape Breton Island.

After all, she says, the loss of language, culture and traditions is a disability.

One of the founders of Mawita’mk was Sylliboy’s late mother, Ma’git (Margaret) Poulette, who attended Shubenacadie Indian residential school from 1947 to 1951. Ma’git, taken at the age of three years old, was one of about 1,000 children from the community sent to the only such school in the Maritimes, located near the village of Shubenacadie about 60 km north of Halifax in Nova Scotia.

Ma’git insisted on two things when Sylliboy was growing up: that she and her siblings go to church and that they learn their language. Sylliboy stopped going to church but she never stopped learning her language.

She recalls her mother saying her language was part of her spirit. It wasn’t something Sylliboy understood until a resident was moving into the group home and told her that he was lonely.

“I looked around. I said, ‘No, it's full here. How come you're lonely?’ And he said, ‘I miss speaking my language.’ And I was like, ‘Wow. Okay.’ So that's when you talk about the spirit of the language,” she said.

In 2023, Mawita’mk opened Eskipetuo’kuom Centre.

“Eskipetu means ‘hope’ and that's what everything that we do here is trying to bring back…what the residential schools took. It's using that holistic model (of) the emotional, mental, spiritual and physical,” said Sylliboy.

As part of that holistic approach, the centre brings in Elders to talk about family trees.

“(My mother) lost her language. When she got back from the residential school, (she) called her parents Mr. and Mrs. Sylliboy instead of ‘Mom and Dad.’ That’s why I think it’s important that we know who we’re related to because residential schools took away our family connections. She credits the community of We’koqma’q for remembering her language because she said that it was in there somewhere,” said Sylliboy.

It was with that in mind that Mawita’mk also embarked on teaching children Mi’kmaw through video.

Mi'kmaw language teachers
(From left) Sheila Johnson, Charlotte Poulette and Rosie Sylliboy in the company of Pip (above). (Photo supplied)

Sylliboy says she and grandmothers Charlotte Poulette (Sylliboy’s sister) and Sheila Johnson figured if children could learn Spanish while watching Dora, the Explorer, why couldn’t they learn Mi’kmaw the same way?

And so they embarked on a project with Talking Planet. The animated language teaching tool, which focuses on the adventures of Mimi, Pip and Momo, is for early learners and their families. It was developed specifically to bring Indigenous and minority endangered languages into the home and the digital world.

Each language project is a collaboration between the team at Talking Planet and the language keepers, experts, and speakers in the communities, says Rupert Waters of Talking Planet.

“Our goal is always to deliver the most authentic, accurate result we can, to the highest possible quality,” he said.

Mi’kmaw is Talking Planet’s second language project. The other is Gaelic.

It took about a year to complete the project, which included finding the funding, says Sylliboy, which came through Nova Scotia’s Department of Communities, Culture, Tourism and Heritage, Telus’ Future Friendly Foundation, and the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of Prince Edward Island.

The scripts for the five episodes, which were written by Talking Planet content creator Cadi Catlow, had to be reworked, says Poulette, who teaches an adult Mi’kmaq immersion program in Bear River First Nation.

“I think as part of our language loss, we're accommodating the English language, even though we're (Mi’kmaw) speakers. When we're asked to translate something, we translate it the way an English sentence is,” said Poulette.

One script called “Bath Time,” Poulette recalls, focused on the bathtub.

“My grandkids are four and five, and…they'll never use (the word) ‘bathtub’ because, really, our language is verb-based. So what they would use is just the action. Washing yourself or getting into the tub. Not describing the bathtub. We don't care about the bathtub. We care about what they're doing in the bathtub. So I switched it up and we sat for many hours teaching (Catlow) the difference,” said Poulette.

All five six-minute episodes were recorded in a single day.

“How we recorded was to sound it because our children aren't fluent in the language. We would break up the words and sound it and they would clump the word together,” said Poulette, who along with Johnson served as language coaches.

For Johnson, the impact of the videos was heartwarming.

Although Mi’kmaw is a complicated language, she says, the words used in the videos were simple enough to say for her eight-year-old granddaughter Christina Mae Stevens, who was one of three children to voice the characters.

“My granddaughter is not fluent in Mi’kmaw. And when we did that video…that's the first time she had ever spoken Mi’kmaw for that length of time. And she was so proud of herself. And she was amazed that she could speak the language,” said Johnson.

The other characters are voiced by Poulette’s grandchildren Colton D. C. Poulette and Riley Levy Poulette.

“It was definitely a learning experience for the kids and I know towards the end they were speaking Mi’kmaw,” said Johnson.

Poulette is using the videos in her class, but she notes that she needs to be “mindful” of her students.

“Because of the residential school, sometimes you still carry trauma. Some families still refuse to learn the language because it's too traumatic for them to try to go back, even ask their parents, their grandparents about the language,” she said.

Poulette adds she tries to promote learning Mi’kmaw as developing a superpower.

“If you can speak the language as an adult that's going to be your superpower. Your culture is going to be your superpower. But having the language is going to add laser beams because, for the lack of better term, you guys would be cash cows because people will pay you to speak the language,” said Poulette, but quickly adds, “It's not about the money, it's about figuring out ways to teach it.”

Johnson points out that some kids are self-conscious about the mistakes they make when speaking Mi’kmaw. That doesn’t mean that she can’t speak Mi’kmaw to them and that they can at least understand the language.

While Mawita’mk has yet to officially launch the series of videos they are now available on Youtube at Sylliboy says the plan is to do something special in February 2024 to mark International Mother Language Day.

Waters adds that the United Nations has asked that the episodes be published on its UNESCO’s project website as part of the Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032).


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