What inspires a person to learn the language of his ancestors, even though he didn't grow up speaking that language himself?

And what inspires him to join a school where he can teach that language to children?

What do those children think about the language? And what affect can the effort have on an entire community?

These were a few of the questions I had for Keller Paap, a teacher in an Ojibwe immersion school program called Waadookodaading (We Help Each Other) on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in north-central Wisconsin. I got in touch with Paap while I was working on our recent program "Sustaining Language, Sustaining Meaning." You can hear his story in the embedded audio above. He begins by introducing himself in Ojibwe.


What I gleaned from talking to Paap was that this language revitalization effort is doing more than merely preserving the language. It's literally keeping the language alive so that it can continue to grow and change, with new words and new ways of saying things. I love the way he describes his students' relationship to the language. It's literally keeping the language alive so that it can continue to grow and change, with new words and new ways of saying things. I love the way he describes his students' relationship to the language. They aren't dwelling on the long-standing U.S. policy of forcibly educating Native Americans in English. They aren't learing Ojibwe as a political act or even as a cultural act. They're just living in it, and making it their own.

This audio piece was produced with help from Trent Gilliss and Mitch Hanley. Music by Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band. Keller Paap took the photo of the Ojibwe road sign, which translates as "The Dam."

Share Your Reflection



I found this short piece very meaningful. For me, it's very clear that, as beautifully stated, language is the key, and it unlocks a host of shared experience. There are words that simply don't translate nor can they ever, completely, from one language to another and yes, the meanings are lost in translation. There's a deep beauty in all languages and that Ojibwe, should become again, a living language is a beautiful idea. I hope this school flourishes. We can learn from each other. Thought and words are so closely connected and it is surely about breath itself, or soul, and in Hebrew known as ruah, that is about the making of sound, the stringing together of letters, like so many shining beads. With thanks

I found this show very interesting from both as someone who is interested in foreign languages and as a Catholic who was a child in the era when the Mass was still celebrated in Latin, went to seminary where I learned both Latin and Greek, yet have lived my adult life in a church which now worships in whatever language the people speak in. As a student learning Spanish, I came to my own realization that the language revealed a different way of expressing and, at its root, looking at things, just from the way certain idioms and grammatical constructions differed from English.

Having the Catholic background I mentioned above, I find it amazing that on the one hand the Roman Catholic Church "kept alive" the Latin language and way of looking at things for over a thousand years. For both good and bad, Roman Church was thought and expressed itself in a language that went back to ancient Rome. If one looks at the history, however, one realizes that history was build on an even earlier layers of Greek thought as expressed in the New Testament and early Christian writings, the teachings of Jesus and his first followers in Aramaic and an even older layer of Hebrew from the Hebrew scriptures. Even today there can be big controversies in the Church regarding translations which are perceived by some to be not as faithful to the original languages of the scriptures.

Today the Roman Catholic Church worships and expresses itself in the languages of its members. Here in the U. S. where people of many nations and languages come to live, the Church tries to establish apostolates for different language groups, because it recognizes that people need to worship and express themselves in the language that is closest to the heart, their native language.

It is also interesting that the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Catholic churches usually worship in the local language of the people. Although many of these churches preserve ancient Semitic, Slavonic, Ge'ez or other languages, they have also adapted to the local language of the people. From what I understand, for example, some parishes here in the U. S. churches have added services in English for the benefit of young people and converts who are not as conversant in the ancient language of their their tradition.

Although this multiplicity of languages complicates the picture, like the many colors of a stained glass window, it adds beauty as well.

This relates to today's "On Being" interview also in that children learn even in the womb not only words but thought patterns as expressed by whatever language they are hearing. I believe that even morals can come across this way.

Having read the great book by Warren Petoskey  Dancing my dream...my study group has often spoken about how the heritage of our N.Americans needs to be passed on..what a great concept to value to the language portion. Just like immigrants or rather  "those who came" may preserve  some of their own language and phrases still many generations later while English does remain the main language of the land.