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A leap of language-learning faith

Konwaia’tisákhe Barnes-Jacobs is one of seven new graduates from the Ratiwennahní:rats Adult Immersion Program. Courtesy Konwaia’tisákhe Barnes-Jacobs

For the first two months of the Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats Adult Immersion Program, Konwaia’tisákhe Barnes-Jacobs had a headache. 

“It was just so much information,” she said. “I would get home and I would be so drained. I would literally just have to lay on the couch and do nothing.”

This month, Barnes-Jacobs graduated from the two-year Kanien’kéha immersion program with six other Kahnawa’kehró:non she now considers family. 

“They’re people I can trust. We were all vulnerable at the same time. We all connected, and we just wanted to see the best out of each other,” Barnes-Jacobs said. “I didn’t just get one best friend – I got six new best friends.”

For Barnes-Jacobs, seriously committing to learning Kanien’kéha was a matter of when, not if. 

“One day, I was in my Kanien’kéha class at Kateri and I got super overwhelmed and I started crying, and that’s when I knew I really just wanted to learn the language. It literally hit me right in the heart,” she said. 

Barnes-Jacobs devoured as much Kanien’kéha as she could when she was young, pouring over her sister Nora Deering’s grammar book and even switching from a lower-level class to a higher one during her time spent at Kahnawake Survival School (KSS). 

But though she maintained her basic Mohawk skills throughout the year, life often got in the way. Before long, Barnes-Jacobs had given birth to her fourth child and was left wondering if participating in the program would still be feasible. 

“I didn’t think it was possible. I had my first child, then my second, and I thought ‘how can I leave them all day?’ I just had that anxiety, like how would I do it? But I noticed that every year around September I’d get emotional because I knew class was starting,” Barnes-Jacobs said. “I was sad. I really wanted to do it. So I realized, no, I need to do it now. Right now. So I applied, and I got in.”

Being accepted into the program was emotional for Barnes-Jacobs, who felt equal parts excitement and fear when she got the call she’d made it in. 

“I cried, because doing this program is my lifelong dream, some people dream to be lawyers and doctors, and my lifelong dream is this. So I was in shock,” said Barnes-Jacobs. “I was nervous too, because I didn’t know if I’d know anybody, and there’s still that sense of shame and that scariness of trying and learning. I knew it was going to be hard.”

There were challenges along the way – particularly as the class found their footing with regard to full immersion.

“The first month was rough. I knew it’d be hard, but that month was way harder than I thought. It was hard not to communicate in English. My brain hurt!” she laughed. “And I was also scared financially. If you’re not working part-time, you’re going to struggle, so it can be hard.”

When she felt at her lowest, Barnes-Jacobs said it was her fellow learners who pulled her out of her funk. 

“I just felt stupid. You feel like you’re dumb. It was a mental battle every day. But then I’d talk to my fellow classmates, and they’d tell me they all felt the same way, and I’d be like ‘Really?! I think you’re so smart!’ It made me realize we all have those moments,” she said. “You’re not alone. That’s what you need to remember. We’re all going through this at the same time.”

Barnes-Jacobs had originally applied to the program at a point where one of her children was leaving immersion, and another was beginning school outside of the community, so the choice to learn now had been in part to prepare herself to further educate her family.

“I had realized if I don’t do it now, it’s going to stunt their learning,” she explained. 

She’s excited now to put her knowledge of the language to use, something that she plans to do by speaking to her family in Kanien’kéha. 

“It’s time to be strict at home and incorporate the language more. We all need to do that, by listening to the talk shows, we need to make sure that now we don’t lose it,” she said. “Especially for me – now that I’m not in immersion Monday to Friday full time, I need to make my own habits at home.”

Though it’s been at times an uphill battle, Barnes-Jacobs said that she doesn’t regret a second of the Ratiwennahní:rats program. For anyone in the community apprehensive to apply, she said the biggest piece of advice she has is to “just go for it.” 

“There’s times you’re going to feel stupid, but don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re doing something that’s life-changing. It’s more than learning a language, there’s just so much that connects with the culture,” she said. “There’ll be times where you want to quit. But you have to remember why you’re doing it.”

This article was originally published in print on Friday, June 16, in issue 32.24 of The Eastern Door.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.