Native language training in demand
SHARING ACROSS BORDERS... Stephen Reid, left, of Whitehorse and David Engles of Minto, Alaska, with a classroom language game created by Reid and demonstrated at a recent YNLC training session.
Exactly twenty years since the Yukon Native Language Centre offered its first teacher training course, a group of trainee instructors are gathered in a classroom at the Centre for the fall training session. These days the group often includes participants from the NWT and Alaska as well, and the sessions are now so popular that YNLC maintains a waiting list, with a second training session regularly offered each fall and spring.
That's the only way to enable participants to complete the three-year program, accredited by Yukon College, which sees trainees teamed with experienced language instructors as part of their training.
In fact some of the participants don't yet have official trainee positions in the schools, but enroll in the training program out of a new-found commitment to their language and an increasing awareness that, with fluent elders passing away, they must be the ones to keep the languages going.
Glenda Jones, a member of Ta'an Kwach'an who is currently helping to run the adult literacy program, was encouraged to begin the three-year certificate program by Linda Harvey, who graduated from the program last year and now teaches the Southern Tutchone program at Hidden Valley Elementary.
"I never really knew I had a native language when I was little," says Jones, whose older sister remembers their grandmother talking to Jones in their language when she was a baby.
Nervous about participating at first, she's now discovered she can "survive" talking in front of a group of people, and even that the activities and lesson-planning can be fun.
"Some people will demonstrate the games they play in the classroom, so they'll ask other people if they want to do it in their language, and that's fun," she says.
But with a new generation of First Nations people now coming of age who are increasingly interested in their own languages and culture, it's not only teacher training that's in demand these days.
While the Centre has always been involved in materials development and research as well as teacher training, demand in those other areas has also increased in the last few years, and that means a greater workload for the staff, explains director John Ritter.
"We always do our best to respond to requests from First Nations communities and individuals for assistance in recording and preserving their languages," he says.
That means that Centre staff are often asked to help with genealogical research, translation, the recording of traditional stories and place names, and language and literacy training in individual communities.
And all while continuing to train teachers, develop teaching resources, and maintain an extensive catalogue of print and web-based materials.
The Centre has also become a model throughout North America for its method of training native language teachers and developing teaching materials, which has led to yet further demand for its expertise.
"There is nowhere else like YNLC," says Alaskan educator Dr. Cynthea Ainsworth, who together with elders Lena Charley and Katie John visited the Centre this fall for recording sessions in the Upper Ahtna language.
"YNLC has the history in developing materials for the classroom that help people teach, that help people learn, and that help people retain language through both literacy and fluency."
Ainsworth and a number of Upper Ahtna elders have been working with YNLC since 1995, creating basic language lessons which were the first literacy materials in
that language to be produced in 30 years.
"Now we're beginning another two-year project to add listening exercises and computer books recorded by two fluent speakers," explains Ainsworth.
The project, says Ainsworth, is breaking new ground for the Upper Ahtna language by producing contemporary written materials to help would-be learners.
But she adds that such work would not be possible without the formats developed by YNLC.
"YNLC's materials focus on the different techniques for language learning that Athabaskan languages
"YNLC has specialized in creating the techniques that ensure success in self-study or school study."
Those techniques are what have drawn two recent participants from the NWT, Emily Kudlak and Marie Jacobson, to a community language instructor training session.
YNLC is training an increasing number of such instructors, hired by their First Nations to offer language classes in adult, daycare, and pre-school settings.
Kudlak and Jacobson both work for the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre, offering support services to language teachers and helping to develop resources.
Kudlak, who speaks Inuinnaqtun and lives in Holman, is helping to produce a dictionary in her language and also runs a moms-and-tots drop-in program in the language.
Jacobson, whose language is Inuvialuktun, lives in Inuvik and was recently hired as a research assistant to help develop a curriculum guide for teachers.
"I've just been getting back into the language in the last few years, especially with the loss of my grandparents," says Jacobson.
"I grew up with elders and I don't have them now, so I need something to keep me connected to who I was and am."
Though both are already familiar with other teaching methods, they plan to put what they've learned during the YNLC training session to good use.
"I know I'm going to use that five-part structure for the daily lesson plan," says Kudlak.
"It doesn't take much time and the planning is very simple. It's a nice format," adds Jacobson.
Like the other participants at the training session, they conducted demonstration lessons in their own languages and became the "students" for other trainees, repeating sentences in unfamiliar languages such as Southern Tutchone and Gwich'in.
"There were a lot of times when my mouth hung open when they asked me to repeat what they'd said," says Kudlak.
"But it really showed me how kids feel when they go into an Inuinnaqtun classroom and the teacher is up there talking to them in another language."
Jacobson nods in vigorous agreement.
"It took a lot of brain-work," she says, adding, "I just want to get more knowledge about my language and the teaching methods. I want to take all the training I can get."
Both of them were pleasantly surprised by how much they felt at home, despite being from outside the Yukon.
"They're so nice; they're so welcoming," says Kudlak.
Creating that welcoming and inclusive atmosphere is something YNLC works hard to establish, both with participants in training sessions and with other users of the Centre.
YNLC linguist André Bourcier noted that during the community training session, two participants from Alaska, Jenny Sanford and Darlene Northway, each sang songs in the Upper Tanana language.
Sanford's song came from her late father, who used to travel by boat all along the Yukon River, and features the English phrase "steamboat country" in the chorus, while the rest of the words are Upper Tanana.
Northway's song is also a very personal one, created by Northway herself on a hunting trip soon after the death of her husband last year, when it appeared that her grandchildren had got lost in the bush.
Such songs Ð some sad, some happy Ð are part of an enduring Athabaskan cultural tradition. They are evidence that the tradition and the language are still alive because new songs are being created.
Bourcier added,"Participants in the sessions feel comfortable here, they feel listened to, and they share their language gifts with one another."
And judging by the sounds of laughter coming from the training classroom, that atmosphere helps provide the best possible environment for learning.