Contribution by Cree Whelshula, NLCC TTA Director
Language acquisition is how we all become speakers of our first language. It is an unconscious process that we do not notice. This process is so unconscious, you may not realize all you have learned until years later, if at all. Acquisition also occurs in a separate area of your brain than when we learn language through books and study.
At the age of 12-13, my mother brought me to the Colville Confederated Tribes Language Program. At the time, there was about four to five Fluent Elders who were employed part-time. By that time, I already had been learning the language in school and from my parents, who were second language learners/teachers. I was young and did not work there, so I was never forced to participate in any activities. I did participate, but sometimes I just observed if I didn’t feel comfortable with what they were doing (I was pretty shy). I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was. The Elders there would speak to one another in the language, and would speak to us. I remember being asked to put something in the freezer and stumbling through what the Elder was asking me to do.
Much of what I consciously remember learning at the language program was vocabulary. Years later, I realized that I had picked up grammar unconsciously during my time at the CCT Language Program. There are certain syntax and grammatical components to the language that I felt were just kind of common sense. When students would start to ask me questions about these, I realized that they were actually not common at all. I had a student ask me where does “very” go in a sentence; as in “I am very hungry.” The answer is taʔlí kn ʔilxʷt, which literally means “very I am hungry.” I had never even thought about that before. I just used it and somehow used it in the correct place although it has a different syntax than English. Another indication that I realized my grasp on grammar happened as I was going through linguistic papers or classes that went over grammar. I remember thinking “Ooooh! That’s why that’s like that.” For example, I knew how to say things like lut aksc̓qʷaqʷ (don’t cry) and lut akstqam (don’t touch that). What I realized later, was that if it is a “don’t command” without an object, the form is lut aks-verb. If it is a “don’t command” with an object, the form is lut aks-verb-m. I had picked up, at the language program, to end the verb in m if there is an object in the sentence. It was fascinating to me that I was able to intuitively add the ‘m’ at the end of the verb without knowing the specific grammatical rule. That is how language acquisition works.
The point of this article is that even if you feel like you are not learning as much as you would like, you are probably picking up way more than you think; especially if you are around the language and hearing it spoken. Listening to audio of fluent Elders, even if you do not understand what they are saying, is a great tip to becoming a proficient speaker. Listening helps build your second language intuition as well as patterns in our languages. Later down the road, you can start to distinguish whether sentences sound right or not. Find opportunities to be around Fluent or Advanced Speakers of your language. If you are a Mentor, speak to your Apprentices even if they do not understand. You may not see the seedling yet, but you have planted the seed.