“Woli'spasuwiw!” the teachers and young students greet each other, as they say "Good morning" at the start of their Passamaquoddy language immersion class. Then they sing, "Woli spasuwihpultine," or "Let us have a good breakfast."
Only Passamaquoddy is spoken in the two language schools, which are located at Sipayik and Indian Township and are for children ages 3 to 5. Lead teacher Margaret Apt points out, "We really want to teach the little ones, and the only way to do it is to totally immerse them in the language." She notes that children learn a language more easily than older students. "The earlier we start teaching the better, and then keep it going through their growing years."
Donald Soctomah, the administrator for the language immersion project, observes that studies show that young children who learn two languages end up performing better in school. The minds of young children "are like a sponge," he says, and they can adapt to languages faster than adults.
The importance of teaching the children cannot be underestimated in the effort to save the Passamaquoddy language. According to a 2008 survey, only 10% of tribal members were fluent in the language, and Soctomah expects that number is now below 8%, since most of them were over 60 when the survey was conducted. About half of the tribal members surveyed who were ages 30 through 60 were considered "fluent comprehenders," and Soctomah thinks that range is now between 25% and 30%.
"It only takes one generation to lose a language," Soctomah points out. But he believes the Passamaquoddys are fortunate to have so many fluent speakers. "Nationwide, it's hard to find that percentage of fluent speakers in a community. Most tribes don't have that high of a percentage." Other tribes have been using the online Passamaquoddy language portal to help kick off their own language programs, and the consultants who helped with the language portal have even been working with tribes in South America to help revitalize their languages. "We're seeing good results," Soctomah says, as the efforts are helping preserve not only Passamaquoddy but also other Native languages.
A concerted effort
The Passamaquoddy language immersion classes, now in their second year, are funded through a three-year $750,000 federal grant to the tribe. The classes are taught using a total physical response technique, with students and teachers standing, sitting or turning around as they say the words for those actions. Apt relates that one of the young students, who loves to run, knew the routine well and then exclaimed, "Mace qusq!" or "Start running!" She adds, "To hear them come out with words or sentences, it makes it worth it."
The children also learn through singing children's songs, going through the names of different animals -- malsom or wolf; mus or moose; muwin or bear; aputamkon or sea serpent -- to the tune "Frère Jacques," while holding up pictures of the animals.
At Sipayik the lead teachers are Apt and Gracie Davis, with Lulu Homan as an apprentice, and Madonna Soctomah and Eleanor Stevens are the lead teachers at Indian Township, with Stephanie Francis as an apprentice. Donald Soctomah notes that not only the children but also the apprentices are learning the language.
In addition, men in the community are being invited to share their knowledge with the students, with Dwayne Tomah recently teaching them the eagle dance and Rolfe Richter being asked to play Native music on his handmade wooden flutes.
Part of the program also aims to involve the parents so they can help their children in learning the language. "The idea is to have them speak the language at home," Apt notes. Soctomah observes that when the children hear the language spoken by their parents it will help reinforce what they learned at school.
"But we need to do it in school as well," points out Apt. "If enough people want to do it, it can be done." She has started language classes for adults at the Waponahki Museum and will begin teaching staff at Beatrice Rafferty School in March. The elementary schools at both reservations already have some language and culture classes.
Of teaching the language through speaking it, Apt says, "When I was a kid, that's how I learned it, but the whole reservation spoke it. There's weren't any classes. But English has overtaken now, so we need a concerted effort."
"As a child, anywhere and everywhere I went I heard the language," she recalls. She never heard her grandmother speak English, although she was able to. Apt's generation, and perhaps the next one, are the last of the fluent speakers.
While she spoke the language from a very early age, Apt says she learned many more words and how to write the language by working for over 12 years with the late David Francis, who was the director and language coordinator at the Waponahki Museum and Resource Center and the co-author of the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet dictionary. Francis was among those instrumental in helping to turn the oral language into a written one, so that it would survive as a living language in today's world. He believed that if the language was lost then the tribe would lose its identity, as the language reflects how a people view the world. The Passamaquoddy language uses verbs instead of nouns for telling time or speaking about diseases. It views a storm or a tree as a process. There is no word for rain but there are many words for raining and to describe how it is raining. "The voice of the land is in our language," the Passamaquoddy say.
Apt explains that, unlike Passamaquoddy, in English one word can have many different meanings. "It's a beautiful language. It's so precise. There's no room for misunderstanding." Of teaching the language to others, she says, "It's not a job for me. It's a passion."
Television, computers and electronic devices, all in English, have a large influence on children, but Apt says they are trying to make some modern-age devices "work for us" to teach Passamaquoddy. A language app that can be used on iPads by both students and adults was developed at Indian Township, a voice-over of "Dora the Explorer" was done at the Sipayik museum by Apt and Brenda Lozada, and cartoons in Passamaquoddy are being posted on Facebook. Also, the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Language Portal is available online to help those who would like to learn the language. Apt notes that the language portal is more than a dictionary, as it includes Passamaquoddy traditions, legends and stories. "Who we are as Passamaquoddys is in that portal now."
At present there are four students in the class at Sipayik, and Soctomah says the project aims to increase the number of students and teachers each year. They also plan to conduct more outreach work in the community to advance the language skills at both reservations. "We will try to get the community more involved with language preservation," he says. In addition, the Passamaquoddy language portal site will be made easier to use, and lesson plans will be added. Soctomah is working with the tribal governments to fund the immersion school, with different age levels, after the federal funding ends next year.
Apt says that there is now greater interest among adults who want to learn Passamaquoddy. "They know who they are and where they come from, and the language is theirs, and they have to pick it up and take it."
"It's an uphill battle. If we don't do it, that battle is going to be lost," she says of the efforts to keep the language alive. "As a tribal member, I feel it's my responsibility to pass it on as it was passed on to me. I'm always feeling hopeful, as long as we keep moving forward with it. You have to have hopes about it going somewhere, and you work to make those hopes real."