The Chisasibi Child Language Acquisition Study (CCLAS)

Lay Summary 

This research project in its initial phase followed language development for six Cree-speaking children: Between November 2004 and April 2007, the project’s Cree-speaking project manager (a resident in the community) met with the six children regularly (about once every three weeks) to make a (45-minute) video-recording of the child engaging in play activities which encouraged the use of language. By the end of this 30-month period, CCLAS had obtained a small collection of video-recordings for each child (130 recordings in total).

Since filming began, the recordings have been undergoing “processing” (e.g., transcription into the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), translation into English, identification of Cree grammatical structures) at Memorial University. The data-gathering (filming) phase ended in April 2007, but the processing phase is ongoing. At the present time we are mostly concerned with identifying what kinds of Cree grammatical structures are represented in the child language samples at any given age (between 2 and 6). As we assume all the children in our study have acquired language at the normal rate, we take our results to reflect the typical sequence of language development for Cree-learners. This has both theoretical and practical implications. With our results, we can compare the language development path for Cree with that of other languages, contributing to the debate over the extent to which children follow universal (as opposed to language-specific) strategies in acquiring language. This in turns sheds light on the Universal Grammar debate, which is a central theme of contemporary theoretical linguistics. On the practical side, our research has implications in the field of Speech-Language Pathology; our data provides the first benchmark (for Cree speakers) against which the language development of other children may be measured. We are currently working collaboratively with clinicians to utilize our database in the clinical setting. Specifically, we wish to develop Cree language Speech-Language screening and intervention tools so that, in cases where Speech-Language assessment is called for, Cree-speaking children may be assessed in their first language. Currently, Cree-speaking children are assessed in a second language (English or French), or, at best, indirectly in Cree (through an interpreter). The absence of first-language screening tools may result in falsely raising the percentage of “language delay” diagnoses returned for Cree-speaking communities. CCLAS also contributes to the ongoing endeavour to document the grammar of the Cree language, offering important support to Cree-medium education programs (e.g., the “Cree as a Language of Instruction Program”, (CLIP) which is in place in Chisasibi and a number of other of the James Bay Cree communities).

While Chisasibi is a (Northern East) Cree-speaking community, the dialect is close enough to dialects of Innu-aimun spoken in Labrador for the CCLAS project to be relevant for (at least) the two Labrador Innu communities. Whatever work we undertake in this area for Cree could, without too much adjustment, be made applicable in Labrador, as the same language is spoken in both provinces, and culturally there are also close parallels (materials have to be culturally as well as linguistically appropriate for the communities).

As far as we know, CCLAS is one of the largest longitudinal naturalistic first language acquisition studies for any language and the largest for any Amerindian language. By focusing on the Cree language, this research project contributes to ongoing efforts to maintain Cree as a vibrant language.


SSHRC Standard Research Grant 2004-08
SSHRC Standard Research Grant 2008-11
Cree School Board Grant (to Undertake Transcription Of The Recordings) 2005-06.Since 2005 We Have Also Been Significantly Assisted In Our Ability To Hire (graduate And Undergraduate) Students To Work As Trainee Researchers Within The Context Of...
St. John's
Newfoundland and Labrador
International Collaboration
Linguistic Research
Industry Sectors 
Educational Support Services
Scientific Research and Development Services
Start date 
1 Jan 2004
End date 
31 Dec 2016