Michif, a Dying Language

Bonnie

For my last blog, I’d like to discuss an endangered language, specifically Michif, which is an even mixture of Plains Cree and Canadian French. The verbs are Cree and the nouns are French. This language is rather unique as it a true mixed language spoken by descendants of mostly French fur traders and Cree women in North America. Eventually, this community became know as the Métis. Most Métis were found in the Red River settlement, now known as Winnipeg though there were scattered communities across the Prairies and in North Dakota. Considering the fur trade was popular in the 1700s and 1800s, the language is rather young. Moreover, it is thought that there were never over 1000 speakers of Michif (Bakker, 1997).

I’m very interested in Michif because it was my grandmother’s maternal language. Unfortunately, I never recognized it as a distinct language till after she died. I used to hear her speak it, but I thought she was code-switching between French and Cree since was born on a reserve and attended a residential school run by the Grey Nuns (les Soeurs Grises), where she learned French. In fact, Michif was her L1, French her L2 and English her L3. Her own children, who were educated in English, did not speak the language and seemed rather embarrassed when she did so in public. Looking back at my childhood, I think of Michif as a rather secret language spoken by Métis grandparents or very old people. I went to grade school in a predominantly French and Métis community in Winnipeg, where most Métis identified themselves as French Canadian, which was not surprising as unlike today Louis Riel was considered more of a rebel than a hero. Also, there was some stigmatization attached to being part First Nations, “Indian” at the time. As a result, Michif was not often passed on to younger generations.

Another reason for the decline of Michif relates to educational policies in Manitoba. In the early 20th century, instruction in public schools had to be in English only. Part of the reason was likely because of the influx of Eastern Europeans to the province and the government didn’t know how or didn’t want to deal with these languages in the public school system. It wasn’t until 1967 that the laws were relaxed for Francophones, who were allowed to be educated half a day in French. Now as far as I know, French and English are the languages of instruction in public schools though other aboriginal languages such as Cree and Ojibwe are offered as part of the curriculum in some schools, but not Michif.

As Michif is a low language, Michif speakers were and are multilingual. Most speak French, English or another aboriginal language. According to Statistics Canada (2011), 640 Métis reported having Michif as a mother tongue and 940 reported being able to speak it well enough to conduct a conversation. Though this is a dying language, the number of speakers has not declined considerably, which is surprising considering how small and spread out the communities are now. Even though I’d hate to see the language die, I’m not sure that it is feasible for the government to pour funds into revitalizing a language with so few speakers. Maybe it’s the responsibility of the Métis communities themselves to take the initiative to preserve the language. What do you think? Who is responsible for revitalizing or preserving minority, aboriginal or heritage languages?

References

Bakker, P. (1997). A language of our own: The genesis of Michif, the mixed Cree-French language of the Canadian Métis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Statistics Canada. (2011). Aboriginal peoples. Retrieved from https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2011/as-sa/index-eng.cfm?TABID=1.

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7 thoughts on “Michif, a Dying Language”

  1. Hi Bonnie,

    Thank you for your great post! You remind me of my experience in Ireland. Irish, as we know, is the native language of Ireland. Yet English is now so widespread that policy makers need to do something to protect the Irish language, like Bill 101, whereas the policies did not make so much improvement as here in Montreal.

    After asking my Irish friends I got to know that, although they put Irish in most signs in the streets, on buses etc., and made Irish language courses compulsory in most schools,

    1. Still 90% of the courses are in English.

    2. Kids/teenagers are ashamed of speaking Irish because either they feel it’s too rural, or their proficiency of Irish is not ideal.

    3. The language courses have a big gap between primary school and middle/high school, where children learn the most basic (vocabulary and beginning grammars) in their primary schools while in middle/high school or even college, the levels teachers teach are like being in a rocket…it suddenly goes up so high.

    Besides those, there are still other problems out there, leading to a decline of Irish language usage year by year. More efficient and stronger policies need to be operated and schools need to take their responsibilities.

    Xuan Zhao (Jamie)

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    1. Hi Jamie,

      Thanks for your insights on Ireland. Israel was able to revitalize Hebrew once in became its own state, so maybe it will happen for the Republic of Ireland.

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  2. Hi Bonnie,
    You are asking very hard questions! Are there simple answers? The question of responsibility is not unidirectional. Grassroots efforts are important (really important), but without some kind of bigger political/ institutional support, the long-term sustainability is not guaranteed. Support from ‘above’ can help integrate programs to encourage minoritized language use at school and at home, which can lead to intergenerational transmission. The case of Maori in New Zealand is inspiring and shows what can happen with concerted resources and effort from the government to validate and promote the vitality of an indigenous language.

    On another note, your comment about ‘secret language’ reminded me of an article by Feuerverger (2000). I’m not sure it’s available online, but it might be worth looking up.

    Feuerverger, G. (2000). My Yiddish voice. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 16(4), 11−20.

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  3. Hi Bonnie,

    It is interesting that you highlighted the topic of dying languages. Actually, with current political changes and the huge immigration movement many languages or lets say dialects might die. For example, the standard Arabic in Saudi Arabia which recently started to die and very small number of people use it. even it is counted as the high language, it is actually not very active and people ashamed to use it in daily social interactions. That is in fact happened since immigration movements have increased in Saudi Arabia and English become more active today than it was in the past. According to the last statistics of population in Saudi Arabia, there are 31 milinos population in total; 11 of them are not Saudi!. I believe this is one of the reasons that effected standard Arabic usage .

    Speaking about responsibility, I agree with Alison that is not easy for individuals to make efforts revitalizing the dying language unless there is political support to do so. In case of Saudi Arabia, few years ago when the government notice English to be more dominant in some commercial institutions they force Arabic beside English to be apparent in every company to guaranty keeping the Arabic language live.

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  4. I think reversing the language shift isn’t a straightforward task. I believe that governmental and institutional supports are crucial to revitalizing a dying language, but I don’t think it is a sufficient condition for it to happen. For example, let’s look at the Welsh language revitalization. Since the 1960s, the Welsh local government has made tremendous efforts to revitalize the language. In the beginning, the Welsh government carefully studied the Quebec case and borrowed many elements that had worked in Quebec such as introducing a Welsh language office of which functions are very similar to those of L’Office Québécois de la langue français. Like Quebec, the Welsh government tackled all three aspects of language planning: status, corpus, and education. Indeed, these efforts saw meaningful results: if you go to Wales today, the Welsh language is highly visible in everywhere. However, the number of Welsh speakers remains relatively stable. Why? The Welsh language didn’t spread out to traditionally English speaking areas in Wales. Instead, it remained in traditionally Welsh speaking areas. Further, the Welsh government doesn’t have a powerful policy enforcing tool to convert the non-Welsh-speaking population.
    – Babble^2

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  5. Hi Bonnie, you might be interested to know that a Métis teacher education program in Saskatchewan (SUNTEP – Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program) is introducing Michif as a required credit course in the SUNTEP Regina program, starting in Winter 2017. Russ Fayant, one of the instructors in the program, and I just wrote an article about planning for the course. We also discuss the state of Michif and other Indigenous languages in Canada: Sterzuk, A., & Fayant, R. (2016). Towards reconciliation through language planning for Indigenous languages in Canadian universities. Current Issues in Language Planning, 17(3-4), 332-350. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14664208.2016.1201239

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