People & Places

Can online classes during the pandemic bring back an endangered language?

Rich Holschuh

Rich Holschuh, a member of the Elnu tribe of Abenaki, hopes the classes he’s taking will prepare more students to become teachers. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

The pandemic has steered a lot of learning online, and language classes have been no exception. But learning an indigenous language with few native speakers left — such as Abenaki, spoken by Vermont’s original inhabitants — presents a unique challenge, and precarity is its own brand of pressure. 

Language teachers hope that lessons learned during the pandemic will set them up for future success.

In the 1990s, when Jesse Bruchac was beginning to learn Abenaki, there were nearly 100 speakers within the Odanak community, an Abenaki reserve in Quebec. “Other than a very short list,” said Bruchac, “every single one of those people has passed away.”

Many indigenous languages across the continent have been eroded by efforts to assimilate indigenous people into mainstream society. That meant speaking the dominant language, English. Pressure came from outside the community and also from within, as Abenaki parents saw more opportunities for their children if they learned English.

At many schools, the use of indigenous languages was not allowed, and teachers would punish students for speaking them. 

“It’s very hard to keep a language that’s been beaten down for generations going because of the psychological impact it has on the community,” said Conor McDonough Quinn. Quinn is a linguist who has been teaching Abenaki alongside Bruchac at the University of Southern Maine for the past four years. This is the case for Abenaki, said Quinn, and also for his own ancestral language, Gaelic.

For some Abenaki families, Bruchac said, “the value had been lost. It was not seen as an opportunity. People only seeing Abenaki as holding them back has been a big part of the history.”  

That’s been changing in recent years, as a new generation is reclaiming the language. But Abenaki is a challenging language to learn, in part because it is so different from English, but also because opportunities for immersion are limited or nonexistent.

“There’s no place you can go where you can be immersed in it, where it’s the dominant language,” Quinn said. “That option just doesn’t exist.”

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That is the problem that language courses offered at Middlebury College attempt to solve. This past summer, the college hosted a pilot program of an Abenaki course, taught by Bruchac and Quinn, where students enrolled in a two-week immersive course.

Although they had hoped to gather in person on Middlebury’s campus, the entire course was taught remotely. Over 20 students enrolled, many of them Abenaki themselves who had some experience learning and speaking the language.

For Bruchac, the course was symbolically significant. “All of a sudden I feel like Abenaki people take it more seriously because it’s gotten this nod from a great university,” he said. This is perhaps especially poignant, given the role that educational institutions  played in erasing the language.

Preparing students to be teachers

Language learners are also optimistic. Rich Holschuh, a member of the Elnu tribe of Abenaki, was one of the students at Middlebury’s pilot program. Holschuh said the class was a good learning experience and was generally considered “a big success.” He has since enrolled in another online course through the education center based in Greenfield Center, New York, that Bruchac runs with his family.

Holschuch hopes these classes will prepare more students to become teachers. “It’s growing very fast,” he said. Before the pandemic, Bruchac received one or two requests per week from people who wanted to join a Facebook page dedicated to learning Abenaki. Now that number has increased to two to four requests per day. Participation on these pages is also up, and online learning works well for students who live too far away to attend in-person classes.

“That’s the most exciting thing,” Bruchac said. “We have people from all the Abenaki communities from Canada and the U.S., all over New England, several joining us from California, from overseas, from Europe. There’s no limit.”

But online classes can’t do everything. They don’t, for instance, allow for the sharing of food and dancing that typically accompany in-person Abenaki language instruction.

While online courses are a new development, technology has been key to language instruction for a long time, according to Bruchac, who pointed to a printing press built by Abenaki people in the 1830s. Bruchac recalls bringing a laptop to class in the 1990s, to the delight of his teacher Cecile Wawanolette. Soon Bruchac was sitting at the front of the class, and he went on to work with Wawanolette and her son Elie Joubert on an Abenaki language dictionary.

Students today continue these efforts, like Jacob Wood, who put together an app with around 5,000 words and recordings of heritage speakers from the 1960s and the 1990s.

As teachers adapt to remote learning, they also create a repository of materials they hope will be available to learners for generations to come.


Amanda Gokee

About Amanda

Amanda is a graduate of Harvard University, where she majored in romance language and literature, with a secondary focus on global health. She grew up in Vermont and is working on a master’s degree in liberal studies at Dartmouth with a concentration in creative writing.

Email: [email protected]

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