Indigenous Language Education and Online Video Conferencing: Initial Reflections

Photo of Ian McCallum’s Laptop showing Yoon Ha Da Yuleekhamuneen Huluniixsuwaakan / This Is the Way We Write our Language and students (from top to bottom) Ian McCallum, Sarah and Kyenna Saunders, Jamie Tucker, and Mary Jane Logan McCallum, April 21, 2020. Photo: Ian McCallum.

By Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Ian McCallum[1]

Since March, the COVID-19 pandemic and public health directives of social distancing have posed many challenges to how education is delivered to students in many provinces. Instead of face-to-face programming in schools, students must access learning over the Internet. Here we present our initial reflections on the experience of using video conferencing to teach our language, Lunaape.

Munsee Delaware Nation, or Nalahii, one of two Lunaape First Nations in Canada, is located southwest of London, Ontario, along the Thames River. The Lunaape are one of the earliest Indigenous groups in eastern North America to have contact with Europeans, with lasting and devastating consequences. Successive violent forced removals since the seventeenth century displaced Lunaape communities from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Kansas as well as Ontario. Our First Nation consists of a land base of 2,600 acres and has approximately 600 citizens, with 150 living on-reserve.

Lunaape history in Canada is largely unknown outside of a small group of interested people, and few people speak our language (which UNESCO has warned is “critically endangered” – the most vulnerable) fluently. These erasures have been perpetuated by the absence or misrepresentation of Indigenous history in school curricula over generations. But we know that sharing knowledge of language, history, and culture is essential to developing fuller understandings of the world around us, and in so doing we reaffirm self-determination and healthy relationships to land, environment, and other people. So, in 2016 a group of Munsee Delaware Nation band members and neighbours initiated weekend workshops to study our history, culture, and language. The workshops provide an opportunity to meet regularly, to learn, and to share our knowledge. Lunaape language specialist Karen Mosko also teaches language classes in the community every week, and within the words she teaches we learn the deeper meanings of science, history, culture, and religion in the Lunaape world.

COVID-19 has, quite literally, erected barriers to our language learning in the community, where averting spread of COVID-19 is a top priority. Munsee is in a state of lockdown, regulated by the Emergency Control Committee jointly with neighbouring band, Chippewa of the Thames. Some road access into the community is physically blocked; elsewhere access is controlled with layers of permission (on-reserve resident, off-reserve resident, service delivery). A curfew is also in place. As a result, we have postponed our workshops. Determined to continue language education, however, Karen Mosko and Ian McCallum decided to offer sessions using video conferencing (Zoom) and circulated invitations to people involved with the workshops and on social media. We have held four weeks of Zoom classes, drawing an average of fifteen participants to each class.

One of the first things that we do in our language is to identify ourselves, who we are and where we come from. Thus, we learned that participants have included members of Munsee Delaware Nation, Delaware Nation (Moraviantown), Ramapough Lenape Nation, and the Stockbridge-Munsee Band, as well as neighbours. They joined from Munsee, Windsor, St. Thomas, London, Kitchener, Barrie, Oshawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver; Queens, NY; Ramapough, NJ; Nashville, TN; and Shawano, WI. So far, women have outnumbered men; the youngest participant is in their 20s, the oldest in their 70s. Some are academics, or in the education field more generally, who see Lunaape language learning as part of their professional work. All are motivated by a commitment to learn more about Lunaape ways of seeing the world and to preserve Lunaape culture and language. The initial enthusiastic response prompted Mosko and McCallum to offer a second class so as to support both beginner and intermediate speakers. While such demand existed before, limited resources were focussed on in-person learning. The prohibitions on social gathering have presented a unique opportunity to shift resources to distance-learning and reach a wider community of learners.

Prior to the first class, the teachers distributed language materials to provide a focus and direction for the participants. The online setting had a different, in some ways less anxiety-inducing, social dynamic. The video-conference medium, where you see yourself onscreen, often feels like a performance, but this seemed to work well for the mostly beginner-level learners. For many who are in early language learning contexts, it may often feel like spoken dialogue is performed, rather than innate; as a class learns and practices new words, we all more or less consciously perform. Not knowing other participants on-screen made less of a difference, too, than walking into a room of strangers. Humour plays a role here – and McCallum, Mosko, and her partner, Mike, proved to be witty instructors able to create a relaxed and open atmosphere.

Building on the first, subsequent lessons opened with time for each person to speak in turn and added a “repeating round” to give each participant a chance to pronounce and repeat the words we were learning. One might think that listening and waiting for fifteen people to introduce themselves would be tedious, but it provided an opportunity for us to use our language and also get to know people. We learned new words throughout, and the chat function provided space where they could be repeated and spelled out for those who were taking notes. One drawback of the video-conferencing format, however, and a stark contrast to our in-person workshops, is that it can be difficult to read a social situation without the regular immediacy of cues such as body language.[1]

We found a number of factors that need to be considered in advance of online language instruction. Instructors must consult and determine level-appropriate learning materials, which then must be prepared in three languages (Lunaape, English, and phonetics). Invitations are made via email or social media messaging and must direct participants to the platform and provide clear instructions to access it, along with the usual date and time. Participants need to have access to a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or home computer to access the class.

Web tools like Zoom rely on effective Internet with sufficient bandwidth and speed. As access to reliable internet is not consistent for all participants, our sessions experienced occasional interruptions. For rural and reserve residents, chronically underserviced infrastructure makes running multiple web tools problematic. A connection lag, for example, can mean questions from participants are delivered out of the context or missed altogether. The Munsee council is considering several initiatives to improve internet service and to provide computers hese would not extend to most of the language class participants who are from different Indigenous communities or who live off-reserve or in a different country.

Using web tools for language revitalization is not unique to Lunaape. The Internet has been used to promote and teach Indigenous languages in many ways, including blogs, podcasts, language apps (including Mohawk, Oneida, Anishinaabemowin, Cayuga, and Cree), online games and dictionaries (e.g., Oneida, Mohawk, and Anishinaabemowin), YouTube instructional videos, and social media (e.g., the Save the Oneida Language and the Anishinaabemodaa–Ojibwe Language Experience Facebook groups). Perhaps the closest comparison to what we are doing are the Mini Cree Language Workshops offered by, which also moved online because of covid-19; they accommodate 15 learners per session and provide 5 hours of teaching and 5 hours of exercises over 5 days. All three sessions scheduled so far have sold out.

An important element of language instruction via video-conference is that it delivers synchronous learning, whereby students learn the material at the same time (as opposed to asynchronous learning, where students work independently on the same material at different times). Notwithstanding the difficulties it may entail (e.g., adhering to a pre-determined schedule despite other commitments like work and childcare), synchronous learning enriches the experience because it allows for opportunities to share supplementary information and context.[2] For example, during a lesson about sundahkw (cedar), participant Kihkay (Chief) Mark Peters told us about a Munsee chief called Mihtahkwaw (Standing by a Tree). While these interjections are generally short and limited, and sometimes awkward if the speaker forgets to “unmute,” they keep us engaged with the topic at hand and attentive to the other learners.

For all its potential, however, an online learning environment cannot replicate land-based learning. Our language sessions often include learning the word for the month in which they are conducted, but the video-conference format precludes the hands-on learning that usually accompanies the language lesson. For example, May is Ehahkiiheet Niipaahum, or Planting Moon. Typically, that language session would be taught alongside an activity like planting vegetables. Online, that tactile learning requires teachers to provide detailed directions and depends on participants’ commitment to carrying them out and their ability to do so (e.g., access to a garden).


SN Indigenous Language Image 2

Photo of Ian McCallum’s Laptop showing vocabulary for Ehahkiiheet Niipaahum/Planting Moon (May). Photo: Ian McCallum.

Still, Mosko and McCallum’s efforts to provide language education online fulfils demand from community members who live off-reserve and gives people a way to connect with “home.” But while the economics of online language sessions may seem effective, and online delivery increases the number of classes that can be offered, the costs of quality internet service and individual devices are high and borne by learners as well as teachers. Lesson preparation and delivery, distribution of class material, and addressing learner concerns is different and more time-consuming than preparation and follow-up for face-to-face sessions. In both cases, the work of teaching our language is underpaid or voluntary and performed in addition to full-time jobs and family responsibilities.

In writing this short description of what it has been like to learn and teach our language through an online video conferencing tool, we are reminded of the hard work that goes into Indigenous language preservation. Language learning and teaching is a complex process that can feel inadequate and out of context when coupled with historical dispossession and dislocation. For now, we measure progress by the number of people who can repeat basic phrases, rather than by how many people think in the language and have a more innate concept of what the words mean. The loss of our language – from the repeated removals from our lands, from mandatory federal schooling where our language was not permitted, from the passing of our few Elders who are still fluent – is easier to track than its reclamation. Our language loss is part of a shared history in Canada of governance systems that continue to fail to count us as full members. A more robust Indigenous Languages Act that recognizes Indigenous language rights would ensure that the labour of language preservation and revitalization is neither precarious nor grant-based, but rather fully and predictably resourced. When the physical restrictions due to COVID-19 are eventually lifted, the Munsee Delaware Nation will be faced with difficult decisions about where to invest already scant resources for language education. While the need for in-person language learning in the community is clear, the obvious demand for online instruction from outside Munsee, the infrastructure being developed to meet it, and the new community growing from our Zoom sessions compel us to secure the means to offer both.

We are indebted to the work of Karen Mosko, who is our community’s language leader. We also acknowledge the constant support of her partner, Michael. We are indebted to our Kihkay Mark Peters and Elders who support the group, Norma Richter, Maxine Albert, and Leroy Dolson. We also acknowledge the intellectual and cultural connections we have with Munsee relations and neighbours with whom we do this work: Judy McCallum; Julie Tucker and her brother Jamie Tucker and mom, Meg Tucker; Nahi relations; and Sarah and Kyenna Saunders.

[1] With thanks to editor Jill McConkey for her care and thought and for making this better.


[3] For more information on the benefits and disadvantages of synchronous learning, see Colleen Flaherty, “Zoom Boom,” Inside Higher Ed Website, April 29, 2020 Accessed May 21, 2020.

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