A Surge in Online Learning Is Helping Revive Indigenous Languages

As indigenous language classes become more accessible to people living away from tribal lands, they risk becoming less accessible to those living on them

Photo: Peter Garrard Beck/Getty Images

At 8 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, I log into a remote Anishinaabemowin class from my home on Duwamish, Salish, and Stillaguamish territory in Seattle, Washington. At the same time, Isadore Toulouse starts up his camera from his kitchen thousands of miles away on Ottawa and Chippewa land in Suttons Bay, Michigan.

“Ah, there are my learners!” he beams at the camera. “Wenesh edigwonman pii minikweyin mkadeyaaboo?” he asks slowly, holding up his cup of coffee. “It means, ‘how do you take your coffee?’” He takes a sip, grimaces, and shakes his head. “Maandaagami. Bleh. Means ‘it tastes terrible.’ There is no cream in the house today,” he laughs. Thirty students smile back at him from all over the United States and Canada. It’s a light-hearted interaction, but virtual classes like these represent a partial solution to a sobering problem.

Indigenous languages worldwide are in danger of extinction. UNESCO estimates that without active effort, 90% of the world’s 7,000 languages will be gone by the end of the century. In the United States and Canada, the decline in Indigenous languages wasn’t accidental: It was a colonialist policy of cultural genocide. It’s estimated that 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada alone were sent to residential boarding schools from the 1870s until 1996, where they were punished for speaking their language and practicing cultural traditions. Even after they were closed, the “sixties scoop” — where thousands more Native children were removed from their communities and adopted into white families — stripped many Indigenous people of their language and their culture.

My own mother was one of these children, and that’s how she lost her language. My grandmother — an Ojibwe woman from the Brunswick House Band in Ontario — tried furiously to teach my mother the language, even though she knew she was slowly dying from tuberculosis. By the time my grandmother finally passed away, all my mother could remember were the words for “butter” and “naughty little boy” — and she’s already forgotten those over the years. By taking classes like Toulouse’s, I’m able to start restoring what was lost to our family and do my own small part to reverse the decline in Indigenous languages.

“People living off-territory, we have a right to our language and sometimes for economic reasons or family reasons or whatever, we can’t be at home.”

One of the unexpected side effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Indigenous language instructors say, is that more people like me are seeking out their virtual courses. “I started to really look for [the classes], and I don’t think I would have necessarily if things hadn’t been moving more online,” says Carmen Craig, who is a member of the Hiawatha First Nations Ojibwe band in Ontario and a fellow student in Toulouse’s course.

While online courses of all kinds are booming as Covid-19 keeps people at home, virtual learning is particularly important for Indigenous languages. That is because these classes, when offered in person, tend to be located only on or near tribal lands — as do partners for practicing the language and immersion opportunities. But according to the most recent U.S. census, only 22% of Indigenous people live on tribal land. “[With virtual classes] we can reach people in urban areas or who are outside of Ojibwe’s speaking communities in a way that was harder to do before, and that’s a benefit,” says Anton Treuer, PhD, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University and an active proponent of language revitalization.

While Toulouse’s class, for instance, had been offered online before the pandemic, many classes that were once only available in certain communities are now available online. For example, Craig is applying for a coveted spot in an Ojibwe immersion course that used to be only available in-person in Minnesota but is now open to students everywhere virtually. “I feel like people living off-territory, we have a right to our language and sometimes for economic reasons or family reasons or whatever, we can’t be at home,” she says. This is my case as well — in one of the true twists of colonialism, I grew up only a few hours from my grandmother’s community yet have never been there because an international border crossed between us.

Isadore Toulouse teaches a remote Anishinaabemowin class from his kitchen on Ottawa and Chippewa land in Suttons Bay, Michigan.

While the pandemic has enabled more people to learn an Indigenous language using technology, it isn’t without problems. For people on tribal lands, internet connectivity remains one of the biggest obstacles. According to a 2018 U.S. census report, just over half of Native Americans living on reservations had access to broadband internet, compared with 83% of non-Native people. Those without good internet access are often simply left out entirely, though some people are still able to access it at local community centers. But with the pandemic, many of those spaces are closed right now too. As classes become more accessible to people living away from tribal lands, they risk becoming less accessible to those living on them.

And even if teachers and students do have good internet and a good computer, there’s another problem that parents around the country are familiar with: Not everyone is great at learning online. Some students learn languages better with in-person interaction. Additionally, many of the traditional keepers of the language are elders or older members of the community, who may not be proficient at managing complicated technology.

“Most of the elders are like, ‘I don’t know how to do that. Send someone to my house and tell them to hook it up,’” says Treuer.

Toulouse, for example, relies on volunteers to help him manage his online classrooms. “I can barely send an email,” he jokes again in class after thanking his helpers.

Some virtual learning projects that involve in-person interaction to produce are simply being put on hold. Treuer was previously working on a comprehensive multiyear Rosetta Stone course, but now that’s been put off due to safety concerns of having an outside film crew on the partner reservations.

Other organizations are finding creative ways to adapt. The Language Conservancy (TLC) on the traditional lands of the Miami, Delaware, Potawatomi, and Shawnee people in Bloomington, Indiana works with tribes to create Indigenous language-learning materials. Since they can’t physically travel to reservations to collect recordings of Native language speakers, they’ve tried something new for the first time in working with the Crow tribe on their recent language collection efforts.

“We sent out the equipment, the mics and everything to where the people could come to the Crow community school and record there, but with just members of the reservation there. So no linguists coming from the outside in,” says Chris Branam, a public relations specialist for the organization. “Our linguists were actually here in the office and they were going over the words via Zoom and getting their recordings from that.”

“Even in terms of gross numbers, I’m not sure that’s a perfect offset for what we’re losing.”

Preserving and teaching Indigenous languages is literally a race against time in many cases, and Covid-19 has made that race even more difficult as it most severely impacts elders. One of Treuer’s other projects is collecting stories from elders to print into books. It’s a task that normally requires convening 50 people, and so it’s been put on hold for now. “In Mille Lacs, one of the elders that was a major contributor on our books just died. So if not for that, we probably would have had another 20 stories from her,” says Treuer.

Indigenous people have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic. According to recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incidence rate of Covid-19 in 23 states was 3.5 times higher among American Indian and Alaska Native communities than among the non-Hispanic white population. The Navajo Nation in particular has suffered incalculable losses, with more than 10,000 diagnosed cases of the disease resulting in over 500 deaths.

Treuer says that any death in the community is a loss for the language. “In the Ojibwe language universe,” he says, “I think losing anybody either as a student, or a teacher, or an elder contributing to developing resources for the language, those are unacceptable losses. And we are taking some. We are gaining a few new students who are able to gain access because of the technological delivery over Zoom. But even in terms of gross numbers, I’m not sure that’s a perfect offset for what we’re losing.”

Virtual classes will never make up for the heartbreaking loss of community members brought by Covid-19. Still, despite the many challenges of moving courses online, there’s plenty of optimism about virtual learning’s role in revitalizing online languages. Treuer is excited for the possibility of new technologies like holographic language tables and rooms with directional audio/visual systems that more closely simulate an in-person learning experience, as well as the eventual release of the Rosetta Stone Ojibwe program. TLC is also currently working with software developers to bring new speech-recognition technology to their language-learning apps that allows learners to check their pronunciation via the software. And finally, many teachers and organizations that have moved online, like TLC, are planning on continuing their online offerings indefinitely in conjunction with their in-person events.

“I’d rather have no Covid. But any kind of disturbance does create the potential for growth. When there’s a forest fire, it does create the potential for blueberries and under-canopy things to grow,” says Treuer. “I think it’s forced some people to innovate. If it’s getting some people off of their plateau, great. But there are costs and some of the costs are permanent.”

Lindsay VanSomeren is a freelance writer living in Seattle, WA. She covers personal finance, science, and Indigenous affairs.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store