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REF NO.: 216

SUBJECT: Tools for literacy: Memorial Unviersity researchers deveoloping Innu dictionary
DATE: Feb. 24, 2005

Thirty-five per cent of Innu children in Labrador never attend school, partly due to being "plunged into an alien culture and language." These were the shocking findings of a report released by Dr. David Philpott and a team of researchers from Memorial University's Faculty of Education. Labrador's Innu education system came under intense scrutiny late last year when the researchers released the report, An Educational Profile of the Learning Needs of Innu Youth, which outlined the systemic failings of the education system and revealed many disturbing problems faced by Innu youth.

Now researchers in Memorial's Department of Linguistics and Faculty of Education, working in partnership with Labrador Innu communities, are developing tools that will aid in the enhancement of literacy of the Innu in their own language, Innu-aimun. The research team, led by Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie, head of Memorial's Department of Linguistics, was awarded a Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) grant of $996,992 over five years from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for the project Knowledge and Human Resources for Innu Language Development. The primary endeavour of the group will be to develop a comprehensive tri-lingual (Innu-aimun, English, French) dictionary.

"With my co-investigators Barbara Burnaby, Faculty of Education, Philip Branigan, Linguistics, and Marie-Odile Junker, CarletonUniversity, we will be developing tools for promoting literacy in the Innu language primarily for the Innu people of Labrador," said Dr. MacKenzie. "The first year or two of the project will focus on building on the existing Montagnais-French dictionary compiled by Quebec linguist Lynn Drapeau, adding English translations and Labrador words, so that it can then form the basis of creating and revising literacy documents such as readers, classroom materials and other teaching aids using a common spelling system."

A large part of the Memorial-based project will be the development of new vocabulary through a series of workshops with Innu speakers and university and community experts. "It is often difficult for translators to come up with technical vocabulary on the spot; we will assist people who are developing new words in the areas of social work, health, justice, governance and land tenure to think about English concepts, to understand the word formation processes in Innu and to come up with neologisms, new terms in the language that are suitable for use in interpreting and translation," said Dr. MacKenzie.

"We are also aiming to sensitize English and French speakers to the complexities of Innu-aimun. You cannot just translate from English to Innu the same way you can from English to French, since these languages are much closer to each other and there are already a lot of common words and shared cultural assumptions," explained Dr. MacKenzie. "When translating into Innu, it is often necessary to explain the European cultural background before you can come up with a term."

The group also aims to train the Innu speakers to be conscious of the word formation strategies and processes that they already know about and already use but cannot talk about explicitly. Another focus will be to get consensus from people and try to make sure the new words are used by everyone. "We will have a group of people who will work in the field with elders and others and will promote new words through newsletters and particularly the radio," said Dr. MacKenzie.

Another part of the project includes the creation of a Web site that will serve as an archive of information about the Innu language, including texts written in Innu, bibliographies, student theses and, eventually, the dictionary.

The group will also be partnering with the teacher training programs and other training programs in the community. "We are hoping that by upgrading people in literacy in their own language through workshops there will be a cross-over effect so that people will be encouraged to take those literacy skills they have in Innu-aimun and apply them to upgrading their English literacy as well," said Dr. MacKenzie. "For aboriginal people in Labrador to take advantage of economic opportunities like Voisey's Bay they have to have a minimum level of ability to function in English."

Dr. MacKenzie and her group have met with Dr. Philpott to see how they can take the findings of his research and apply them to the hands-on work that they will be doing. "In terms of David Philpott's work, I think that it provides some important context for the work of the CURA project in that it clearly indicates the extent that English has (or has not) been learned in the community as a second language," said Dr. Burnaby. "Innu-aimun must be seen in the context of English, which is putting enormous pressure on minority languages. Problems in effectively teaching English as a second language also suggest the importance of creating real communicative roles for Innu-aimun in the K-12 school system, in adult education and in all aspects of communication in the settlements."

Dr. MacKenzie and her team have been closely collaborating with the Sheshatshiu Innu Nation, the Innu Education Authority in Sheshatshiu and the Institut Culturel et Éucatif Montagnais in Quebec. "The research will be focused on establishing an ongoing relationship between organizations in the community and the university," explained Dr. MacKenzie. "Groups such as Labrador Legal Services, the Newfoundland and Labrador Legal Aid Commission and the Sheshatshiu health and social services organizations on the one hand and faculty members from departments within Memorial on the other hand will establish teams to promote improved skills in Innu and English language in their specific domains. Thus, the results of research can be given back to the community so that members of the community can be trained to participate in research that is in their interest."

"SSHRC's CURA program is designed to bring researchers and community groups together to work on issues of joint concern," said SSHRC President Marc Renaud. "We are delighted to be funding the research of Dr. MacKenzie and her team, because it has the potential to make a real difference in the lives of Labrador's Innu people."

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