Online course preserves Mohawk language

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By Heather Travis
Thursday, October 1, 2009
David Kanatawakhon-Maracle believes the preservation of language is equal to the preservation of a culture.



Anthropologist David Kanatawakhon-Maracle is passing along his language through the Mohawk language distance studies course. Students listen to audio recordings to understand the language and pronunciation. aptiontexthere
 
As a teacher of the Mohawk language at The University of Western Ontario, he is doing his part to keep his language and culture alive.  
 
Kanatawakhon-Maracle teaches in the Department of Anthropology and for the first time in 16 years, he is teaching First Nations 2104, Introduction to the Mohawk Language, as an online distance studies course.  
 
Understanding Mohawk is more than learning a few conversational phrases, so Kanatawakhon-Maracle turned to the Instructional Technology Resource Centre. Together they developed a WebCT OWL site that incorporates audio recordings of his voice to help students practice pronunciation and recognize elements of the language.  
 
In addition to having MP3 recordings, workbooks were converted into HTML. Links were added to each syllable, word or sentence, enabling students to click on the word and hear the pronunciation.
 
“Language is more than a lot of noise we use to communicate with,” he says. “A good portion of that communication is based on cultural interaction, tradition and cultural history.” 
 
“I feel a lot more comfortable when speaking Mohawk than when I speak English. When I speak Mohawk I am using vocabulary that my ancestors used 600 years ago.”  
 
Before students can talk the talk, they must first learn some basics.  
 
One challenge with online distance studies is the lack of direct interaction with the instructor. The audio component of the course simulates the in-class experience of hearing Kanatawakhon-Maracle speak and helps students understand how to use the language properly.
 
More than 4,000 audio clips are used in the course, including short, one-word sound clips and full sentences.
 
Although it is a language course, Kanatawakhon-Maracle says students will gain an understanding of the culture because the two are closely linked.  
 
Mohawk is full of metaphors, which are used to describe one’s relationship to the greater world.  
 
There are 58 pronoun prefixes, dozens more than in the English language, and they are used in variations depending on how the words are used. Also, Mohawk uses what Kanatawakhon-Maracle describes as “scramble word order” which means sentences can be said in a variety of different ways.  
 
“It matches up with English intonation,” he says. “Every time you put more emphasis on a particular part of what you are saying, that would match up with a word arrangement in Mohawk. We create emphasis by reordering our vocabulary.”
 
When reading a book written in English, the reader must add the emphasis into the story based on cues from punctuation or the tone of the language. However, Mohawk is written with the intonations built in and there is no need for interpretation.
 
“If you are reading a story in Mohawk, it’s as if someone is right there speaking it and telling the story right in front of you,” he says.
 
By providing audio recordings of the words, students sense the flow of the language. Rather than just reading the words in a text, it helps students recognize variations of a word when it is spoken in conversation.  
 
Keen to pass his language on to others, Kanatawakhon-Maracle has written five Mohawk dictionaries and produced a CD with 240 hours of language instruction.
 
“If you change a language, you change a culture and if you lose a language, you lose a culture,” he says.  
 

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