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Smart Ideas: Q&A
Marie-Odile Junker, an Alsatian who loves Algonquian languages

By JEAN-FRANÇOIS VENNE | December 7, 2016

This series, which is sponsored by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, features notable researchers in humanities and social sciences with smart ideas for a better tomorrow. This month, we are speaking with Marie-Odile Junker, a linguistics professor at Carleton University.

jan17-sponsored-marie-odile-junker-300Upon arriving in Canada in 1985, Marie-Odile Junker was surprised that you could learn any foreign language but an indigenous one. After completing a PhD in French, the Carleton University linguist changed gears and began studying indigenous languages. She would become a leading expert in the field and would even help to preserve and revitalize the languages she studied.

How much of a role did the study of indigenous languages have at Canadian universities when you first arrived?

Dr. Junker: Some professors were interested, notably William Cowan at Carleton University, but that was quite rare. At the universities I attended, Université de Sherbrooke and the University of Ottawa, nobody was studying native languages. As a linguist, I was concerned by the scant attention given to indigenous languages and the little store universities and society set by them — especially because they seemed to have so much to offer. So I decided to delve into the field when I began my postdoctoral fellowship in 1992.

How would you describe the “big idea” behind your research?

Dr. Junker: My research is based on the sentiment that Indigenous peoples suffered a great injustice and on the desire to help repair that. Rich languages that are a part of humanity’s cultural heritage are at real risk of disappearing. A linguist cannot help but feel a sense of duty towards endangered languages, much like a biologist facing a loss of biodiversity or a climatologist worrying about climate change. It’s a question of documenting what exists and attempting to preserve and revitalize it by creating valuable tools for Indigenous communities.

One of your major innovations was introducing “participatory action” research to linguistics. Tell us about your method.

Dr. Junker: This approach is primarily used in psychology and international development. It aims to engage the people who are being researched and who will benefit from the findings. In other words, the people involved — in my case, Indigenous people—are not relegated to being merely study subjects or data sources. They actually participate in projects and stand to benefit from the results. I had no model for this in linguistics. How could I ensure that a community project, based on a question as theoretical as “How is quantification done in Cree?” would positively affect the Indigenous people taking part?

I initially did a lot of work on research processes. For example, I wanted to ensure that somebody who came to talk to me for an hour about processes in his or her language would take something away from it, if only a fresh outlook on the value of that language. Over time, I also really involved Indigenous partners in developing and carrying out projects. For example, in 1995, when the Cree School Board made Cree the language of instruction for the first three years of elementary school, we had to create tools for teachers. I worked with the Indigenous people who were developing the program to create things like online grammar references and an oral history database.

The Cree community is heavily involved. We collected more than 550 oral histories, and the Cree now manage the project. The Innu later approached us about doing a similar project. It was proof that when communities feel included in a university research project and can see the benefits, they want to participate. In a participatory action research framework, my primary objective is always to meet the needs of Indigenous language speakers. Following that, our work can also be used in academic research.

Information and communication technology (ICT) is an important part of your work. You created an Algonquian linguistic atlas, online dictionaries and grammars, conversation apps and more. Are these technologies key to the survival of these languages?

Dr. Junker: In the early 2000s, it quickly became apparent that the federal government was going to bring the Internet to the North, where many Indigenous communities are located. I asked myself how ICT could help preserve and revitalize indigenous languages. There was a great need for teaching resources, which I had seen when I started taking Ojibway courses in 1992. Visiting various communities had also shown me that many people were unaware of the ties between their language and other Algonquian languages. From there, the Algonquian Linguistic Atlas was born. I had gotten the idea for the project when speaking with two Cree women.

Many years later, I’m seeing a lot of enthusiasm for these tools. For example, more than 75,000 words have been searched in our online Innu dictionary to date. Of the searches, 60% were in Innu, which means that Innu speakers are largely behind those searches. The conversation apps have been heavily downloaded. These tools can help university researchers but are also used by the Indigenous communities themselves, so they play a dual role in preserving and revitalizing indigenous languages.

How has your research affected the way universities approach indigenous languages?

Dr. Junker: On a purely linguistic level, I have highlighted the fact that Algonquian languages are polysynthetic, meaning that their words are long and can even correspond to entire phrases in our language. Another difference is that in English and French, we name things. Our dictionaries are largely composed of nouns and adjectives. Algonquian languages, however, do not use adjectives and consist of up to 80% verbs. The dictionaries we created avoid simply imposing English and French on indigenous languages, since these discrepancies reflect a different worldview. We name, divide, classify and define, while Algonquian languages are less static by nature, focusing more on processes and changes.

I was fortunate that my university recognized the value of my work and especially the validity of the participatory action research method in linguistics. In traditional academic research, once you set a goal, you are then in a position to say that the ends justify the means. I think I have demonstrated that you can achieve your goals using a participatory action research framework. It requires listening closely to Indigenous people and the ability to explain certain realities of universities to them, such as the fact that as a researcher, I have to publish and distribute our project findings. Today, young researchers looking to emulate this type of approach will face much less pushback from universities. Personally, I think that in the 21st century, it’s the only way to do research in this field. We aren’t doing research for Indigenous people, nor on them, but with them.

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