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Keren Rice

Rice's research has led to mapping out Dene grammar, a learned book on Athapaskan verbs and a training program for native teachers in Dene languages

How strong is Keren Rice’s passion for the spoken word? Never mind that she is now director of the university’s Aborginal Studies Program, an expert in the Dene languages of the Northwest Territories, and an author of dictionaries that are helping to revive and revitalize Mackenzie Valley languages. Just as remarkable was her achievement as a precocious 15-year-old in Ithaca, N.Y., during the turbulent ’60s: at a time when her country’s Cold War hatred of Communism had escalated into the Vietnam War, she found a way to study both Russian and Chinese.

The fierce political tensions of that era weren’t the only barriers standing between her and the difficult languages she loved. There was also a creaky primeval computer, the centrepiece of an overly ambitious University of Michigan program that aimed to turn American teenagers like Rice into accomplished speakers of Mandarin. “We were guinea pigs,” she remembers, laughing at the misplaced faith in technology that put her in awkward conversations with a clunky machine years before ping-pong diplomacy made real Mandarin speakers more accessible. “Figuring out the Chinese tones was a real problem. It was well before e-mail, of course, and if we had questions, we had to send them to the university and wait weeks for an answer.”

Linguistic challenges clearly intrigue the 51-year-old. One of the most vivid memories of her undergraduate years at Cornell University is of meeting a doctoral student in anthropology from Peru who spoke Quechua (pronounced Ket-shwa), the language of the Incas that at that time had fallen to second-class status in modern Peru. But as open as she was to linguistic opportunities, it wasn’t until Rice (MA 1972, PhD 1976) came to the University of Toronto for graduate work in 1971 that she met the first North American languages close-up.

U of T’s seven-year-old Aboriginal Studies Program stresses the value of native knowledge that may outwardly lack academic credentials. So it’s entirely appropriate that Rice’s first teacher of the rare Dene languages was a speaker with no formal training. The Northwest Territories native was merely visiting a patient at a Toronto hospital when his talents were spotted by a nurse, who happened to be the wife of a U of T linguistics professor.

For Rice, who radiates an explorer’s passion for uncharted languages, the collaboration that followed was life-changing. For five hours each week, she was part of a small group from the linguistics department that met with the Dene teacher. As she listened to his stories and mapped out his grammar, her vocation began to take shape.

Equipped with her Dene nouns and verbs, she headed to the Arctic Circle in 1973 to work with the native community in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. “It was my first time in a really different culture,” she says. “Superficially it seemed the same – a store called the Bay, young people in blue jeans, country music on the radio – but you didn’t have to scratch too deep to see that this was a completely different world.”

Rice embraced the differences, undertaking research that has led not just to Dene grammars and a learned book on word formation in Athapaskan verbs, but also to such community-building efforts as a training program for native teachers in the Dene languages. And in a fine example of applied scholarship, she found time to sit on an orthography-standardization committee that wrestled with the thorny question of how to give oral languages a consistent written form – a task not so far away from the conundrums presented by her high-school Chinese computer courses.

Can the Aboriginal Studies Program stimulate students in the same way that Rice was? Rice thinks so, and not just for non-native students who might be encountering aboriginal languages and culture for the first time. Rice is determined that native students also re-examine their fundamental assumptions. “This is not a program designed to make native students feel better about themselves,” she says. “Our methods are those in which the university prides itself – critical analysis, and logical and creative thinking. The aim is to help students, both native and non-native, find new ways of looking at their world.”

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