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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Custer

Raising Cree Speakers

tānisi niwāhkōmākantik, Andrea nitisithikāson.

It has been a long time since I have blogged about trying to raise my two youngest children in our Cree language. I have been busy with work, so I hope I am forgiven. I am a Cree Language Lecturer and program coordinator for the Indigenous Languages program at First Nations University. I also teach Cree weekly in Ahtahkakoop, which I enjoy. It’s good to laugh with adults who enjoy learning about our language. mitoni nimithīthītīn māna. I wanted to write this blog to update you on our Cree reclamation process in our homefire.

nikosis Andrew is four years old, and nitānis Scarlett will turn 12 soon. I have spent the last few years trying to renormalize our language in the home so that Andrew can learn it as his first language and Scarlett can continue to learn; however, it has not been an easy journey.

The Challenges

I remember being excited about raising my child to be a speaker of our language, and I told my doctor. (Who has since moved). Her response was, "Why aren’t you teaching him English? He can learn your language later." It felt unreal to encounter someone who would try to influence my own child’s language development, even if she meant well. I thought she was ignorant about what had happened to our language and culture. Still, that attitude bothered me. Sometimes, my fire gets snuffed, and I feel tired and like I am fighting a lonely war. What would help is surrounding myself with others doing the same work, a support network. Where, who and how, though?

Another concern is that Andrew has delayed speech. It’s a scary feeling when people comment on his language development. I remember talking to my late grandmother about my concerns, and she said, "don’t worry; when he starts talking, he will not stop." By that, she meant that he will talk my ears off once he begins to talk, hahaha. I am also comforted by what I have read on bilingualism and 1st language acquisition.

Scarlett cannot have full-on conversations in Cree, and I continue to feel that English is a barrier for us. As someone who should have a solution to these challenges, I feel embarrassed that I do not have all the answers, but I will continue to search for methods and continue what I am doing now.

English is also all around us at school and home, and I find it impossible to escape. Andrew is picking it up. One day, we were driving home from the city, and suddenly, I heard him say, "what the hell" on repeat for a while. At first, I laughed and said, "what did he just say!?!" Apparently, he is also picking up English from his peers. I also read that children will only have to hear a word once or twice, and they can quickly memorize them. Crazy!

Introducing Second Language Acquisition: Perspectives and Practices by Kirsten M. Hummel

As I read through the first chapter's stages of first language acquisition, I read something that excited me! "Children’s knowledge of language continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescence, but, remarkably, by the age of five or six, complex syntactic constructions and virtually the entire phonological repertoire of their language are well in place in most children." I feel like I have a solid three years left to continue working with Andrew!

7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child by Naomi Steiner and Susan L. Hayes

Both Scarlett and Andrew are what I would consider passive learners. They can understand Cree but are not actively speaking it. YET. I also find comfort in learning that Andrew’s speech delay is only minor. I also found that Andrew could very well be a bilingual child with more words built up in his brain than those his age raised as monolingual speakers. I also find that Andrew will mix up his words like "mwāc, no, no, no, " which is typical for a child learning two languages simultaneously. As children age, they will learn how to separate the two languages easily.


With Andrew, we do a couple of things around our home. This is the only environment we have control over. It is Cree every day at home. I enjoy asking him to do things in Cree, and he’ll respond, so I know he understands. If he wants something from me, I show him how to say it in Cree and ask him to say the word before I do what he wants me to do for him. For example, he will point at something, and I ask him if he wants juice or a snack, so I will teach him the words for them and then ask him to repeat after me. "minahin sīwāpōs" (Can you give me a drink of juice) is his favourite or "asamin nāna" (Can you feed me a snack). I also use rewards with high fives, smiles, hugs and kisses.

Both daycare and his Cree bilingual preschool report that he will respond more to Cree than to English. That is good to note.

With Scarlett, I take advantage of the times we spend together. During our drives to school, bedtime, and meal times, I used commands most of the time, and she would do what was asked. I still need to find ways to have more conversations with her with no fixed responses. I’ll continue to read and see what I find. Hopefully, I’ll encounter something that will change our progress.

The Rewards

I will randomly hear Scarlett using the language, especially when other kids are around so I believe she is proud to use what she knows. She also sounds like a natural speaker; all her consonants and vowels are perfectly spoken, so she can pick up a book with SRO and read it easily.

About a month ago, Andrew played outside, and he said to the dog as he waved his baby finger, "mwāc no, no, no," My heart soared because I was so excited! Then I thought, "oh my goodness, do I have a bilingual child!?" Another time, his father had juice in his hand. Andrew reached for it, and he said "pētā," which means bring it. Two things happened here. 1) He used the command for something he wanted without anyone prodding him, and 2) He knew how to use a VTI verb! Juice is an inanimate noun in our language, and he used the proper verb (Inanimate transitive verb) to ask for the juice. This tells me that he is learning the complex syntax structures of our language. I will continue to observe and make notes. On another note, through observation, some of the words I know he understands are:

1) Turn off the light

2) Throw s.t. away

3) Put your hat or toque on & take your hat or toque off

4) Put your boots on & take your boots off

5) Put your jacket on & take your jacket off

6) Put your socks on & take your socks off

7) Eat

8) Go sleep or let’s go sleep

9) Kiss me

10) Hug me

11) I love you

12) Drink s.t.

13) Juice

14) Turn off the T.V.

15) Bring s.t.

16) More?

17) This?

18) That?

19) Sit down

There is likely a wealth of vocabulary stored in his brain, I just haven’t recorded any of it, but it is inspiring to see him progress.

As my late grandfather Andrew C. Custer would say, "kāwitha wīkāc pakicī" Never Give Up, so I’ll hold onto his words and continue on our Cree Language Reclamation Journey!

ikosi pitamā

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