Learning to read and write in your own language should be a fundamental human right, yet relatively few Cree speakers ever have that chance. Those who do learn, struggle with a shortage of readable material, and ever-changing spelling. English had the same problems 500 years ago.
We might think of made-up spelling (in any language) as “Alphabet Soup”. *
It takes a long time for any oral language to become a fully written language. Arguments can go on for centuries about the best symbols to use, whose dialect is “right”, and what spelling works the best. It’s a little like whose auntie makes the best soup. The problem is, any set of symbols will work, every dialect is as good as every other dialect, and actual spelling isn’t nearly as important as consistency. Everybody’s auntie can make great soup!
Even centuries of use don’t lead to perfection: readers and writers of English still complain about its crazy spelling, but it works because it is consistent, and they are used to it. Since there is no “right” answer, the only way forward is to pick one system and use it all the time. If we want Cree language literacy to spread in a meaningful way as a healthy part of its revitalization, standard spelling is essential. As an endangered language, Cree hasn’t got centuries to waste!
Reading is our most important tool for lifelong learning. As a bonus, current reading theory tells us that biliteracy – the ability to read in more than one language – permits literacy skills used in one language to transfer to the other – especially when both languages use the same writing system. This means that learning to read and write in Cree can help people learning to read and write in English, and vice versa. But for Cree – as for English – when speakers and teachers write in alphabet soup), most of these benefits get washed down the drain.
Once we can read fluently (in any language), wonderful things happen in our brains. Instead of using all of our “working memory” to puzzle out one sound at a time, our eyes begin to grab whole groups of letters at once, helping us recognize the common clumps as words. Faster conversion of words to understanding lets us shift to a higher gear. When we can read faster, we understand better. We can pay attention to what the words mean together in a sentence or paragraph, instead of puzzling over how they sound.
* This post is drawn from a poster presentation made at the Manitoba Aboriginal Literacy Conference, held in Winnipeg in November 2011, with the title, Building Cree Language Literacy through Standard Spelling. The presentation was created by Ken Paupanekis & Arden Ogg.