Mother tongue

High school is a lot more fun than it was 15 years ago. Secondary education now comes with homemade cookies, Jeopardy, and Gaelic classes. I made this happy discovery a couple of months ago, when I arrived at Citadel High School to sit in on Beth Anne MacEachen’s Grade 11 and 12 Gaelic class. At first, I tried to make myself scarce by sitting in an unoccupied desk at the back corner of the classroom. But MacEachen invited me to participate.
With a frisson of self-doubt, I pushed aside fears of looking silly in front of a bunch of teens, and joined the students. Buoyed by the limited amount of success I’d enjoyed at intermediate-level adult Gaelic class the night before, I was reasonably confident. But these kids put me to shame. For the next hour and 20 minutes, I stumbled along behind eight boisterous, enthusiastic students as they flew through their verbs and pulled off whole sentences in Gaelic, pausing only to giggle at their mistakes and make mustache jokes.
Citadel High’s class is the result of the Gaelic community’s efforts to make the language more accessible to the general public. But Gaelic isn’t the only language receiving some special care lately. Mi’kmaq and Acadian French are also being taught in an effort to preserve the languages. Acadian Affairs is offering French language courses, and Mi’kmaq classes are available through Halifax’s Mi’kmaq Friendship Centre.
Jada Johnson is a Grade 9 student at Truro Junior High School. She’s been formally learning Mi’kmaq since Grade 4, but she’s been hearing the language at home all her life. In fact, that’s why she’s continued to take the class in school. “I’ve been surrounded by it for so long,” she says. “I really want to be able to speak it fluently.” Johnson describes the class as a mix of language training and cultural education. They spend time in class translating English into Mi’kmaq, but they also learn about legends and the importance of Elders in Mi’kmaq culture. Johnson particularly enjoys hearing stories of the Wiklatmu’j, little people who can be mischievous or helpful, depending on how they’re treated.
Johnson says that students without a Mi’kmaq background are drawn to the class. “My teacher is hysterical. She teaches us stuff in an entertaining way, so that we want to learn,” she explains. “Mi’kmaq people are very happy, so Mi’kmaq class is really fun. And we’re all really comfortable with each other.”
Eric Henry, an anthropology professor at Saint Mary’s University, says he finds that most children learn second languages because their parents make them, especially in Halifax, where English is standard. But he also says that whether they do it voluntarily or not, it’s important for children to learn the language that connects them to their community. If they don’t, they often feel disconnected later on in life.
He shares the story of a former student. The student’s grandfather spoke Mi’kmaq, but his mother actively discouraged him from learning the language because she felt it would hold him back. Ultimately, that lack of language actually made him feel like there was a barrier between him and his grandfather. “According to his essay,” says Henry, “it wasn’t just the language that had been interrupted, it was the culture itself. He felt disconnected from his community.”
And that community connection is extremely important to Johnson. “I want to learn the language because I know my elders will always be proud of me,” she says. Johnson has a close relationship with her grandmother and she’s working to deepen it by learning the Mi’kmaq language. “She’s always speaking Mi’kmaq to me. I haven’t been able to speak it back yet, but I’m getting there,” says Johnson. Since Mi’kmaq language classes end with junior high in Truro, she’s already come up with a plan to keep up her Mi’kmaq. “I’m going to ask my grandma to start speaking it to me more.”
Henry emphasizes the connection between language and culture. “To try to experience Celtic culture without speaking Gaelic is almost impossible, in a way,” he says. “You can play the music and sing the songs, but to get a fundamental understanding of the culture, you almost have to speak the language.”
MacEachen says learning the language is important for understanding music. “A musician may have the tunes, but once they have the language they can understand the songs more fully, because they understand where the rhythms come from.” She explains that most Celtic pipe and fiddle tunes are based on Gaelic songs. Many of the old pipers learned the songs directly from the people singing the tunes.
Learning the language of your ancestors is more than staying connected with your culture and your family. According to Henry, it’s also a critical part of maintaining your sense of self. “From a cultural perspective, losing that language is losing your sense of identity. It’s personal. Gaelic identity is deeply connected to Gaelic language,” he says. “There’s a deep emotional connection to language because it’s part of who people are.” That sense of self is certainly present for Johnson, who says that her classmates often ask her for help because she’s been taking Mi’kmaq classes for so long. “I enjoy that because it makes me feel strong,” she says.
Maintaining language is also economically important. Henry notes that it’s almost necessary if you want to gain institutional support for your culture—that if you don’t have a language, the government is less likely to listen to you. MacEachen says that her students’ ability to speak Gaelic has helped them get summer jobs at Citadel Hill and with the provincial tourism department.
I’ve only retained one phrase from my foray into Gaelic classes (is mise Morag—“My name is Sarah”), but I learned a lot of other things. I found out that there’s a great community of people in Halifax committed to preserving a language that might otherwise fade into obscurity. And I discovered that no matter how ridiculous you sound while you’re trying to learn that language, no one laughs at you. Not even in high school.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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