Before I had children, the plan was that I would be a fluent speaker of Cree so that I could teach it to my children. How hard could it be? I already knew some Cree, and I’d learned to speak Spanish fluently in a short period of time without intensive studies. (The father of my children is Chilean.) I pictured us walking along, nattering in nêhiyawêwin and the thought always made me happy.
Of course, life intervened. School, work, relocating…it’s not like I could gain fluency online in my spare time, away from other speakers of the language. I struggled to find resources, but there I was, with my first daughter born and still not fluent. This was not how it was supposed to be!
I am still not a fluent speaker. One day, I will be. That is still my goal. Nonetheless, I speak as much Cree to and with my children as I can.
It has been going fairly well. Since they were babies, I have repeated myself to them in three languages…English, Spanish and Cree. Are you hungry? ¿Tienes hambre? kinôhtêkatân cî? Be careful! ¡Ten cuidado! Awahê! When we knew were were coming to Montreal, I added in French where I could.
No doubt my daughters thought I was a little dim, having to say the same thing over again and again, and for a while I despaired it was working. As they grew, they would get annoyed with me and tell me to speak to them in English. They would say they didn’t understand me. I didn’t give up though…I always said something else and asked them, “What did I just say?” They would answer and I would use that as proof that they understood. But they never spoke back to me in Spanish or Cree. Always English.
That is, until they got a little older. My youngest started speaking some words in Spanish and Cree when she was about five. She must have figured out that she was more likely to get what she wanted if she spoke to me in one or the other. It worked, too! Soon the older one caught on. My kids suck up to me by speaking their paternal or their maternal language!
It’s one thing to know that children are linguistic sponges, and quite another to believe it, especially if they don’t start in chattering in other languages right away like you (foolishly) think they will. Right now they spend over half of their school day communicating in French. It’s been two years of this now, and it’s taken that long for them to start trying to speak in French. But they do it, and in beautiful accents. They make mistakes, but they do it.
I have met a number of plains Cree mothers here in Montreal and we all bemoan our lack of fluency. Well…nêhiyawêtân! Let’s speak Cree!
Most of us aren’t going to be able to get our children into a classroom where they speak IN Cree, rather than just being taught Cree in a language course. And it is the former that builds real fluency, not the latter…although it’s not like we have that option either. My children have the chance to be fluent in French and Spanish because it is used in their everyday lives as a matter of fact. They are learning those languages the way languages are supposed to be learned…holistically, naturally. Not as a series of consciously understood grammatical rules.
They can have this opportunity in nêhiyawêwin too, I am convinced of it. Even if I have to build my fluency up just a few steps ahead of them.
I have found lack of confidence to be the major stumbling block to language use. That and not being forced to use it. I learned Spanish so quickly because I had no other choice…I had been traveling in Latin America and people could not switch to English for my convenience. It was learn, or not be understood. I lost all shame I might have had because I became used to just trying my best to say something.
Yet I have studied French as a second language for years and years in school at all levels, and I still don’t feel confident using it. I am afraid of making mistakes, and people here in Montreal switch immediately to English to make it easier for you which means you are rarely forced to keep trying.
Most of us are not in a situation where we can be forced to speak Cree. But we can try to get over the lack of confidence that comes with not being a fluent speaker. We can create an environment where our children must speak Cree to us. Not a coercive environment, mind you, but a safe one. One where the language is modeled naturally.
If you are anything like most of the mothers and kookums out there, some of the most commonly used words in your vocabulary are of the ‘command’ type. The best thing about starting with ccommands is…they are some of the simplest verb forms you’re going to find in Cree. No point in terrifying yourself with words like niwînikamostamawâw (I am going to sing for a third person) right off the bat!
The Cree imperative form allows you to take the root verb and use it unchanged if you’re addressing one person. If you want to address more than one person, you often only have to add a ‘k’ to the end of the root verb. There are some verbs that take ‘itik’ to make them plural, but those are less common, especially at this point. So for example:
minihkwê(k)! [drink] (MIN-ih-gway), (MIN-ih-gwayg)
mîciso(k)! [eat] (mee-TSOO), (mee-TSOOG)
api(k)! [sit] (u-PI), (u-PIG)
awas(itik)! [go away] (u-WUS), (U-wus-tig)
âstam(itik)! [come here] (aa-STUM), (aa-stum-tig)
…and so on.
There are a bazillion great Cree verbs you can use stand-alone to tell your kids what to do. Then you build.
I started small, and now I think I’m ready to build. I want my partner to learn my language too, and he is open to it. My girls are asking me “how do you say such and such in Cree” with increasing frequency. Sometimes I can answer them, sometimes I can’t. I am starting to realise that like it or not, I am the go to person for nêhiyawêwin in my family, and I’d better figure out a plan if I don’t want my loved ones to lose interest pretty darn soon…