How can the Yukon save its languages? (from October 7 issue of the Yukon News)
Northern and Southern Tutchone, Tlingit, Gwich’in, Han, Upper Tanana, Kaska and Tagish are languages that, not so long ago, thundered throughout the territory.
But today those languages are but whispers amid a din of English.
Most are on the verge of falling silent forever.
The consequences of not trying to save the languages are grave, said Dave Sloan, the Education department’s director of learning.
“Language is not just a medium for communication, it’s also a medium for transmission of culture,” he said.
“There are ideas that you can express within an aboriginal language that are inherent to a culture, that don’t translate to English.”
Reviving and preserving aboriginal languages requires dedication on the part of their communities, say educators.
Interest in that effort is growing, especially with the pressure being exerted by the Kwanlin Dun, Little Salmon/Carmacks and Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nations, all of which are considering opting out of the Yukon education system.
But that interest often conflicts with a deep-seeded fear within educators and First Nation citizens themselves: that speaking an aboriginal language limits children in school and in their careers.
People should lose their fears, not their languages, said Kathy Michel.
“It does not affect the learning or the capabilities of your children of going to university or getting a career,” she said during a recent talk in Whitehorse, which was attended mostly by First Nation teachers.
“If we don’t start believing that, we are going to become a monolingual culture. We will lose the beauty of our heritage.”
Michel pioneered a language “nest” in Chase, British Columbia, to revive the Secwepemc First Nation’s Shuswap language.
Looking after children under the age of five, the nests are similar to daycare.
The key difference is that an elder is also in the room, speaking Shuswap to the children.
The nests started in a small cabin in 1987. But the language program has now expanded to the Chief Atahm School, where children are educated exclusively in Shuswap until Grade 4.
After that, Shuswap is slowly rolled back and English is introduced.
Age is key, said Michel: if more fluent speakers would raise their children in their language, there wouldn’t be the problem.
“The best way of maintaining language is to speak language to babies from the time they are born,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”
There is no question that Michel is right — that speaking to children is key, said Sloan.
But adapting the Secwepemc First Nation’s success to the Yukon has its problems.
“People who want their children to preserve that element of their culture, I think, would see language as the vehicle to do that with,” he said.
“But for many of our 14 First Nations, we have very few speakers left.”
The Secwepemc First Nation has 19 bands that share a common language (though there are dialects) and many speakers.
That just isn’t the case here, said Sloan.
“For many of our First Nation languages, our community of speakers is so low that you have the problem of having speakers who could work within a school situation.”
Take Tagish: one elder, Lucy Wren, is the only remaining fluent speaker of a language that is older than history.
Language preservation comes down to a feeling of ownership, said Linda Harvey, rural program co-ordinator at the Native Language Centre in Whitehorse.
Speakers need to speak to their children, she said.
“People need to have ownership of their own language, because it’s their culture,” she said. “It’s their language they need to want to learn.”
The Council of Yukon Indians created the centre in 1973.
It teaches basic linguistics, helps with pre-school and after-school language programs in communities, develops curriculum for kindergarten-to-Grade-7 language classes in most Yukon schools and creates CD-ROMs with elders telling stories.
There is also a website with language training in all eight languages now, said Harvey.
Each First Nation has a yearly, weeklong seminar at the centre, where elders speak, or translate curriculum into their languages, as well as participating in language comparison sessions.
“We’re trying any way possible to save languages,” said Harvey.
Seven of the eight Yukon aboriginal languages are based on the Athabaskan language, which stretches from the Arctic Ocean down into the US.
Navaho Indians from the US have visited the centre to compare their language with others in the Yukon.
Many common words emerged, said Harvey.
“Their word for rabbit — ‘ga’ — is the same as most of the languages’ word for rabbit.”
But the similarities don’t mean the Yukon’s languages aren’t unique and shouldn’t be cherished, she said.
“When they loose their language, it’s gone for good. They can learn another one that is similar to their own, but they won’t have ownership of the language. It won’t be the language their grandmothers spoke.”
The Teslin Tlingit First Nation is now considering a full immersion program, said Daleyn Secord, an education support worker for the First Nation.
The Tlingit are moving towards programs, “like French immersion,” she said, at the Council of Yukon First Nation’s conference on education Tuesday.
“We’re at the very beginning of the process, but we hope to have a program developed within the next five years.”
The immersion program would take children who already speak English and make them bilingual, said Secord.
The government has given the Teslin Tlingit $5,000 to start the program, but it is asking for more money, she said.
But, like many educators, Sloan sees the potential pitfalls of placing the burden of retaining a language on children.
“Even in Quebec, a lot of francophone parents are trying to put their kids into English schools because they realize English is the language of commerce, and so-on,” he said.
“Clearly, parents want their children to have the tools to succeed in a modern world. Whether or not that’s an inhibition to people putting their kids into an aboriginal language program or an immersion program, I don’t know.”
What is clear, he said, is that saving a language must be supported by hard work within its community.
“We can support that; we can work with them to develop materials; we can develop school programs; but the role of the preservation of a language and culture really has to come from that culture and that community itself.”