Immersed in Saulteaux

By Krista Baliko Posted: December 6, 2018 5:00 a.m.

Cecile Asham, Denise Asham, and Cary and Bradley in the library of the Chief Paskwa Education Centre.
Cecile Asham, Denise Asham, and Cary and Bradley in the library of the Chief Paskwa Education Centre. Photo: U of R Photography

Denise Asham sits with her mother and two sons as they count in Saulteaux.

With help from her mom, Cecile, she’s teaching Bradley and Cary through immersion. She’s also helping to keep the language alive in her community.

“In Pasqua First Nation, our Indigenous tongue is on the brink of extinction. It’s alarming. Especially because I’m a language teacher at our local school.”

While her mother has spoken Saulteaux her entire life, Asham, now a master’s student in the Faculty of Education, only learned to read and write in the language as an adult, when she was an undergraduate student at First Nations University of Canada. But she wants her sons to start earlier than she did.

“I left university thinking that sitting in a classroom was the best way to learn a language,” says Asham. “But when I returned to my community and started teaching my students in the same way, they weren’t engaged.”

She explains that while students were learning to read and write—the colonial way of language learning—they didn’t understand the words and couldn’t carry on conversations.

“I began talking with Elders fluent in Saulteaux. They spoke about the necessity of immersion learning, using the language during all interactions and ceremonies. Once I started using language immersion at home, I quickly realized, as an oral language, Saulteaux should be learned this way.”

Asham then took it a step further. She started teaching her language classes the same way and soon noticed students using Saulteaux throughout the day.

“Now they tell me they enjoy Saulteaux. And because I’m not focused on reading and writing, neither are my students. Instead, they focus on understanding the language.”

Asham’s study is based on the concept of language nests, an immersion model intended for younger children that allows them to learn in a safe, home-like environment, to be totally immersed in the language, and to learn from Elders in the family and community.

“Language nests help create environments where language is involved wholly and naturally,” says Asham.

These practices are now the basis for her master’s research.

“I’ve created a mini language nest with my two sons and my mother. During weekends we speak only Saulteaux,” says Asham. “Next, I’m going to analyze how they develop and grow in their language acquisition.”

She will also be looking at how they adapt to language learning in more natural settings and through their lived experiences.

“This will allow me, and other members of the community, to see that immersion practices are essential to language revitalization—using lived experiences as our aid to teach the language, and using ceremony as our base of guidance, learning, and teaching.”


To learn more about the wide variety of research being conducted at the University of Regina, please visit Discourse, the University’s research magazine.