Workshop attracts next generation of native-language teachers

WHITEHORSE — Sitting together at a table at the Yukon Native Language Centre, Agnes MacDonald and Sophie Green represent two ends of the spectrum of native-language revival.

Both are of Southern Tutchone heritage and are distantly related - MacDonald's grandfather and Green's great-grandmother were brother and sister.

But there's one important difference: MacDonald belongs to the generation that still speaks their language fluently, while Green didn't have that opportunity.

However, they're both equally committed to maintaining their language.

That commitment brought them to a recent Southern Tutchone orientation workshop held at the language centre, designed to introduce potential native-language instructors to the basics of learning and teaching their language.

At 29, Green, who is originally from Aishihik and works as an office manager for the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation in Whitehorse, is typical of her generation.

"My mum and my aunts and my uncles all have the language, but me and my cousins, we don't," she says. "We understand just key words and are not fluent at all."

For Green, the language training offered by the orientation workshop is an essential step in the process of language revival.

"If my tradition and culture are going to survive this millennium, it's going to take the younger generation to get the ball rolling," she says.

"We're going to have to start somewhere, and taking this training course is giving me the basics."

Green, whose mother and four aunts have all been native-language instructors - "it's the family business," she laughs - isn't yet sure whether she wants to teach in the school native-language programs herself, but is concerned about passing on the language to her daughters.

"This workshop was able to show me different techniques of repetition rather than using the native word and the English word at the same time," she explains.

"I learned that by using repetition of the native word, my three-year-old daughter will eventually grasp what that is."

She also has nieces and nephews, for whom, she says, "I can be the teacher, whether we're out in the bush or at my house."

Agnes MacDonald is from the generation that grew up speaking the language until they went to residential school, although thanks to her mother's lack of English, she continued to use her own language during holidays at home.

MacDonald, who is from Haines Junction, worked as a native-language instructor at four Whitehorse elementary schools during the 1980s, and later taught other instructors at the Yukon Native Language Centre.

"When I first started teaching, I noticed that I was losing a little bit of my language, because I was in Whitehorse and I didn't have anybody to talk to," she says.

"But when I began teaching at the language centre, I started picking it up fast."

Now, she says, "I would like to start all over again - I want to set up an adult class in Haines Junction."

As both she and Green point out, it's Green's generation that doesn't have access to native-language courses, although there are native-language school programs for their children.

"What I want to do is start working with the mothers like Sophie, the ones who want to teach their kids to learn the language," explains MacDonald.

"Whatever she's getting from me, she can teach her kids."

Recently, she put up a notice in Haines Junction and had 15 potential students sign up for classes.

"That really gave me the encouragement to start teaching again," she says, adding that the training workshop was "like a refresher.

"I have to upgrade myself, I have to be able to teach at my students' level, depending how much they understand. But I can handle it."

One of the workshop organizers was Vera Owlchild, an employment and training officer with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation in Whitehorse, who worked together with staff at the Yukon Native Language Centre in putting together the workshop.

"There were a lot of individuals from our community who wanted to begin teaching our native language in the schools," says Owlchild, who grew up in Champagne.

"It was time to do something about it and begin helping these people realize their potential in this area."

She herself was one of eight participants in the workshop, along with Lucie Lecoy, manager of education, employment and training for the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation.

Like Owlchild, Lecoy, who is from Burwash, grew up speaking her language before she attended school.

But although she understands a lot, "I don't like to speak it, I don't feel I know enough to speak it," she says.

"This training is really important to begin saving our language," she adds. "There are fewer fluent speakers left and it's going to get worse as time goes on."

Meanwhile, there are members of the older generation, like Agnes MacDonald, who do speak the language.

"I think we're pretty lucky in our area to still have quite a few fluent speakers in their fifties," says Lecoy. "We can use that as our foundation to revive the language."

"Those people feel they could make use of their knowledge somehow," adds Owlchild. "Being a teacher is one way to use that knowledge."

Participants in the workshop, taught by language centre staff, took part in a variety of activities, including conversation practice and games designed to teach the language.

They also discussed lesson planning and taught a demonstration lesson.

"All the participants enjoyed the orientation and wished it was longer," says Owlchild.

Sophie Green discovered that learning her own language was not as hard as she thought it was.

"The workshop made it a little bit easier for me, understanding the tones and how just from the position of your tongue you can make six different words.

"This workshop gives me the encouragement to say, 'Yes, I can speak it, I can learn it, and I can teach it.'"

For all these participants, the goal is to preserve the language so that it can be passed on to future generations.

"Eventually, I'm going to have grandchildren and, hopefully by that time, they'll be able to understand their native language and be able to access it, in whatever way," says Owlchild.

For Sophie Green, who felt "so jealous" during the Arctic Winter Games when she heard the athletes from Greenland speaking their language "without hesitation or even thinking about it," her goal is to have her children feel equally at home in their own language.

"That's what I'd like to see in the long term, have our kids be able to do that," she says.