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Vol 37  No 14
May 19, 2005


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The building blocks of language

Cree children speak out

By Tracey Mills

Dr. Julie Brittain


How do children learning to speak acquire sounds? Is there a distinguishable pattern in their acquisition of grammar and vocabulary? Much work has already been done on answering these questions using languages such as English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Japanese as the case studies. Now a group of linguists at Memorial are working on a first-of-its-kind project to examine child language acquisition in the Cree community of Chisasibi, Northern Quebec.

“In the English language, we know that children learn certain suffixes in a particular order and there are distinguishable milestones in their language learning journey,” said Dr. Julie Brittain, principal investigator of the project. “We want to plot these milestones in the Cree language, something which has never been done before.”

The Chisasibi child language acquisition project began in April 2004 with funding from SSHRC in the amount of $206,956. Four linguists from Memorial are involved in the research which is expected to last three years: Drs. Julie Brittain, Yvan Rose, Carrie Dyck and Marguerite MacKenzie. The first eight months were spent organizing the project, speaking to key community organizations such as the Band Council, the Cree School Board and Anjabowa Childcare Centre, and conducting extensive community relations work, which included appearing on local community radio.

“The goal of our project is to acquire baseline information about the language development sequence for a child learning to speak Cree and make a record of the normal developmental sequence for Cree,” added Dr. Brittain. “We are interested in seeing how children learning Cree as a first language adopt learning strategies that have been identified in the context of other acquisition studies.”

Cree child during walking out ceremony


Two groups of children are being studied: Cohort A are aged 12 to 48 months and Cohort B are between 36 months and six years. Currently the team is working with five children and expects one more soon. All the families involved in the study are volunteers. The children are videotaped in a natural setting playing with toys and interacting with a project assistant who speaks Cree. Most of the video recordings are done at the Anjabowa Childcare Centre, the community’s Cree-speaking daycare facility.

“We want to engage the children in activities that would ellicit speech so we have a recording of their natural language development,” said Dr. Brittain.

So far the children seem to be enjoying the attention and the community is responding positively to the project.

Dr. Brittain and her team expect the first progress report to be available by the end of May 2005. Data entry, using software the research team has developed for this project, has already begun.

Gathering data about a language that is typologically distinct from other languages that have previously been the focus of such studies, is a significant long-term goal of the project stressed Dr. Brittain.

“We hope to add weight to theories which have already been formulated with regard to how children set about learning their mother tongue, and to provide new information as well. Cree is an endangered language with only 80,000 speakers in Canada and 1,000 in the United States, and research like this supports the work Cree speakers are engaged in, ensuring the long-term survival of their language.”

The information gathered will help in the development of classroom materials for educators by providing information such as what kinds of vocabulary and grammar children of a given age might be expected to have acquired. This study could also be of benefit to speech language pathologists who need access to a record of the normal developmental sequence in order to diagnose, and offer therapy for, language learning difficulties.

“We are also providing training to our Cree collaborators in Chisasibi. For example, we have provided our project assistant, Darlene Bearskin Kitty, with technical training in conducting the video recording sessions with the children. She also electronically transfers the movie files to us in St. John’s.”

The project is time-consuming because it is heavily reliant on technology, much of which is being tailor-made especially for this study, but the team feel that the benefits will be well worth the effort.

“A project such as this one could well serve as the model for future acquisition studies in communities situated in fairly remote geographical locations.”

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