COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph — Aug. 10, 2012

Jessica Iron Joseph
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Almost four years ago I complained to my husband that I didn’t speak Cree. I bemoaned the fact that I hadn’t learned before I had had children. I had always planned to learn Cree before having children, so that I could raise them with it, but somehow it hadn’t quite happened as I had planned. My husband’s parents both speak Cree, and so does my mother, so it seems strange that we don’t speak our language. You would think we would have been raised with it, but that’s not always the case.

My mother was definitely busy with her career, and she was a single mom too, so I don’t blame her. I was a very headstrong and independent child, so I’m sure getting me to brush my hair was an arduous enough task, let alone trying to teach me another language.

I could have learned in my teens, but I was busy being a teenager. I could have learned in my twenties, but there was university, plus I had my babies. I was always too busy.

Before I knew it, I was almost 30 and I hadn’t even tried to learn Cree. I looked at my kids sadly, feeling that I had somehow failed them.

It was a great weight upon my shoulders, and for a few weeks, I dragged myself around, as reality settled in. My kids would grow up like me, not knowing their own language.

Then I dared to have a crazy thought.

I asked my husband how long he thought it would take to learn a language. We tossed around some numbers and somewhere between five and seven years sounded very realistic. Naturally, with full immersion in a Cree-speaking place, you would probably learn much sooner. And of course, if you factor in a person’s natural abilities, you might learn even sooner.

I pictured myself at 35, or 37, speaking the language fluidly, with ease. It was a beautiful image, one that filled me with hope.

I announced to my husband that I was going to learn. I was going to make the time. I knew it would be hard, but I was willing to do it because I desperately wanted to speak Cree.

I reasoned that because I am a writer and have a natural aptitude for words and phrases, that learning another language might be easier for me. I wasn’t sure of this, and truly only suspected it, but it really helped push me on.

So I cracked open the case of Cree CDs I had for starters. Sadly, it didn’t come with a straightforward translation book, and was mostly filled with exercises, which didn’t help me much. I set to work on translating it. My mother was an immense help.

I took all the CDs out of my vehicle and replaced them with Cree CDs, only Cree. That’s all I listened to as I drove for years. When I cleaned my house, I played those CDs. When I cooked, I played those CDs. I really enjoyed it, and it filled my heart with love and pride every time, knowing that I was getting closer to my goal every day.

When I mastered those CDs, I made some of my own. I had many interesting phone calls with my mother and when she would visit me I would record her. She would say familiar phrases to me and I would translate them and replay them later, when she had left.

I studied different books to learn the language structure, and for more practice, which always helped. I listened to Cree interviews on MBC radio when I had the chance, picking out words and phrases that I understood.

It definitely got easier as time went on. I’m still not fluent now, but I have a much stronger grasp and I think if I were dropped into a fluent community, I could get by, and maybe within a short while I might be speaking Cree fairly fluently.

During this time, I also studied French. I’ve always liked French, and it was interesting to study both Cree and French simultaneously. Cree is radically different from English. Cree is more action or verb-based, while English is noun-based and the structures of the languages are incredibly different.

French, on the other hand, is very similar to English. A friend of mine figures it’s because they’re both based on Latin. Possibly, but I did notice that I took to French way faster than I did with Cree.

Some people think I should just focus on one language, and learn that one first, before studying another. I originally thought that too, but then I reasoned that at some point I’ll know both Cree and French, so why not learn them together anyway? When I get sick of learning Cree, I listen to French for awhile. When I get sick of French, I go back and study Cree. It’s all fun to me.

As I’ve been learning, several of my non-Cree-speaking friends have confessed how they always wished they could learn too, but that it’s hard and sometimes Cree speakers make fun of them.

I used to be afraid of making mistakes too. But I wanted to learn Cree more than hang onto my pride. Now I suck it up and let people laugh, point their finger or correct me, if they must. I really don’t care what someone else thinks, I just want to know Cree.

I’ve already started Cree lessons with my kids. Sometimes they’re interested, other times they’re bored, but they are learning.

Ultimately, for my five- to seven-year commitment: I will speak Cree, teach my husband and children Cree, and my grandchildren will all learn too. So, for that commitment, it amounts to at least five people learning Cree, but probably at least another half dozen more. Maybe a dozen people could speak Cree because of me.

If you wish you could speak Cree, French, Dene or Spanish or any other language, make the time. You will eventually speak that language, and a whole new world open up before you.

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