A couple of weeks ago we have decided to show up to our office 2 hours early. through the streets and public transport of shanghai at 6 am is not the first thing that comes to mind that could be described as “fun” to try out a new language class. We fired up the meeting room projector and started our Skype lesson with one of our newest teachers, Ryan Heavy Head.
If the name strikes you as unusual, it is because Ryan is a teacher of Blackfoot, an Algonquian language (linguistic family containing many North American heritage languages) of the Blackfoot tribe in Northwestern US and Southwestern Canada. His ancestry includes Blackfoot as well.
This was the first group staff class, bringing italki staff and friends together for a rare glimpse of a language, culture, and worldview that may not exist in only one generation. The lecture served as a great introduction not only to the language itself, but to another worldview embedded in the language.
In discussions and comments about about preservation of language heritage we often see the sentiment of “why bother?”. There is an almost Darwinian argument made here, that assumes that a language is worth learning or saving based somehow on the number of speakers or it’s “usefulness”. It makes sense, too, as many language learners are motivated by practical reasons: passing tests and advancing careers.
Still, we can’t support this argument, not because of a knee-jerk fear of missing out, but because we believe that human experience and knowledge is valuable.
The time we spent speaking with Ryan about Niitsi’powahsin made it very plain to us just how much information can be embedded in conversation about language.The very structure of morphemes (basic units of meaning) in every word is elegantly descriptive in a way that reveals a fascinating amount of cultural context.
The name of the language itself can be broken down into several meaningful parts:
- Niit – “first” or “original”, referring to the Plains Indians traditional way of life before encountering the Europeans.
- -powahsin – “language”
Merging the two then creates the name for the “original language” of Blackfoot: Niitsi’powahsin.
By this logic we can produce more words, for example, adding the name for the non-blackfoot Europeans: –naapi, resulting in the word Naapi’powahsin.
Similar logic is applied to other words, with morpheme -itapi meaning “living being” resulting in the following: niitsitapi (first people, the Blackfoot), naa’pitapi (Europeans), matapi (human), maatomaita’pitapiiya（a mature, fully developed being; a respectable, kind person).
The combinatorial nature of the language makes it very descriptive, and also suggests the internal logic and worldview associated with the language.
But, what IS the Beaver Bundle?
We delved further into this worldview by discussing the “bundles” – sacred objects made of multiple animal hides representing the “treaties” between man and nature, which are further narrated in the oral tradition of the Blackfoot. As a people who have lived in a particular territory, the Blackfoot (or Siksikaitsitapi – literally “blackfoot people”) their relationship to the animals, cycles of nature, and social attitudes were reflected in the content of the language and stories, but also in the mechanics and logic of the language.
Exploring a new language is always exciting, but this particular case was especially interesting. The rarity of the language made us feel that we had a unique opportunity to experience language-learning. What’s more, we got to experience an endangered and exotic language in a way that was impossible in a traditional classroom setting. Any large city will have an abundance of schools and courses for learning English, and any number of speakers and willing tutors of widely-known languages. Finding a professional teacher for a language that has only a few thousand native speakers, on the other hand, is a rare moment. Being able to experience Ryan’s lecture while sitting in our Shanghai office really underscored the advantage of online language learning.
The potential is there, at our fingertips, to dive deeply and personally into a worldview alien from our own. We are able to gain more than just learning vocabulary or grammar. We are able to access the real carriers of culture and knowledge, someone able to explain to us a perspective onto a new world, a human experience impossible to have with a book or a recording of a language.
This is one of the reasons why we are proud of our work, and of our community of teachers and learners. We are able to create a unique, truly human experience and promote understanding and self-reflection. We are creating a way to experience learning inaccessible through more traditional approaches. We hope then, that our community takes up the challenge to learn and explore, and to view language-learning not as a problem to be solved or chore to be done. Instead, we hope that language learning becomes a habit, a way of life, and a lens through which we can understand ourselves and each-other.
Ryan’s Profile can be found here.
Ryan’s youtube channel is also a great resource to learn about blackfoot culture and language, and oddly enough, how snake anti-venom is made.
For more information about Ryan and Blackfoot language and history, please check out this documentary.
If you’d like to see other fascinating initiatives about preserving Blackfoot language and heritage, check out this story about preserving the language through Hip-hop.