Yukon Language Model Praised

WHITEHORSE - Native language programs in two American states — Alaska and Utah — are looking to the Yukon Native Language Centre as a model for developing their own programs.

A visiting bilingual educator from Utah, and three staff members of a new native language program in Tok, Alaska, all spoke highly of the Yukon model during recent native language teacher training sessions at the Centre.

Clayton Long is a fluent Navajo speaker from Blanding, Utah, an experienced teacher and administrator, and currently Bilingual Director for San Juan school district in southern Utah.

Although the program he directs is highlighted as one of the best in the States, he feels that the Yukon program is superior in providing an accessible, pragmatic and flexible approach to native language teaching.

"What this program has done," he says, "is to take a variety of teaching approaches and put it into a format, and I think it's beautiful -- simple for the teacher and for the kids."

What's lacking in the Utah program, according to Long, is the process of teaching a native language that the Yukon Native Language Centre pioneered.

"The actual teacher's day-to-day, moment-to-moment way of doing native languages is the component we're missing down there," he says.

And, on his return home, he plans to approach his own school district to suggest that they adopt the YNLC approach to language training.

"The Yukon program is a template for all native languages," he says. "That's why I'm excited about it. The strength of this program is conversation based on complete sentences. Somebody who isn't a teacher can do it and a week later she or he walks out teaching."

In fact Long sees the possibility of using the teaching method for the whole community, not just within the schools.

"In my mind I'm envisioning we can teach this to the parents and the parents can teach it to other parents or to their children, so that when the children come into the school they actually know the pattern. Then the kindergarten teacher can say, your mom's been teaching this so let's just keep going, adding on to it. I'd like the whole community to learn about this pattern, not just the school."

Long has taken advantage of his Yukon visit to adapt some of the Centre's curriculum materials for use in his own program.

He has translated one of the Centre's talking books into Navajo -- an "easily adaptable story", he says -- and has recorded it on computer with the assistance of YNLC linguist and computer specialist Doug Hitch.

He is also working on lessons to develop listening skills based on the Yukon model, adding that "the main thing to take to my staff is the teaching process to learn oral language."

And he wants to get involved in the preservation of Navajo placenames, as the YNLC and Yukon native language speakers have done.

"Ultimately I'd like all Athapaskans to come back together to help each other with language and culture," he says.

Cynthea Ainsworth, director of the Athabascan Language Project of the Mt. Sanford Tribal Consortium in Tok, Alaska, is equally impressed by the Yukon Native Language Centre's approach.

The Tok project is the recent recipient of a two-year grant to provide teacher training and curriculum development for the Ahtna and Upper Tanana language groups in eastern Alaska.

"We are really starting from scratch," says Ainsworth. "What we're trying to do with this grant is to import the Yukon facility to the extent that we can. This is a marvellous model for the kind of very practical educational materials and method one needs for language revival."

As with Yukon native languages, most of the fluent speakers of Ahtna and Upper Tanana are in their 60s and 70s, so the need for language revival is urgent.

"We are hoping this program will make a real difference," says Ainsworth. "There is nothing like it in Alaska. The Yukon facility is quite unique in its pool of talent and its track record, and the sheer importability of the method is staggering."

Ainsworth attended teacher training sessions at the YNLC along with Avis Sam and Irene Solomon-Arnold, who have both played a key role in the development of the language project in Tok.

Both Sam and Solomon Arnold are graduates of YNLC's Certificate Training program for teachers.

In 1994 Solomon Arnold was also the first graduate of the native language education degree program developed jointly by YNLC and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

As a fluent speaker of Tanacross who had to relearn her language when she returned to Alaska as an adult, Solomon Arnold sees her role as promoting the general teaching of native languages.

"All the teaching methods that I've learned here will be beneficial in promoting our languages," she says. "I'm hoping to encourage the people to create a native language centre like this one in Whitehorse."

Avis Sam is a fluent speaker of Upper Tanana and an experienced language teacher who will be one of two teacher trainers in the new Tok program.

"The Yukon is way ahead of us," she says, "and what we're trying to do is model our organization on what we see up here. It's really good."

Twelve prospective teachers, two from each of the six Ahtna and Upper Tanana villages, will be meeting for the first time when Ainsworth, Sam, and Solomon Arnold return to Alaska to offer a three-day training session based on the Yukon model.

"The YNLC approach is so effective because it teaches a method that is adaptable to all Athapaskan languages," says Ainsworth, "and therefore as the teaching teams come in from the villages we give them the means to pass their language on to their younger people and adults in a structured way. I can't say enough wonderful things about it."

YNLC staff and Yukon participants are naturally pleased and heartened by the response of the visitors. The sharing of perspectives, experiences, and languages which takes place at the training sessions is quite remarkable. Long-serving Southern Tutchone Specialist Margaret Workman sums it up this way, "Our own teachers learn so much about how people live in other Athapaskan areas. We compare our languages and cultures, and we share ideas about how to encourage our young people to stay in school and at the same time learn about their traditional culture. It's amazing how much we all have in common."