More trainees needed for native language teaching

NEWS photo by Mike Thomas

KEEPING IT ALIVE...Dorothy Bellerose teaches Southern Tutchone to high school students in Whitehorse.

Dorothy Bellerose is a brand new native language teacher, with a year of experience teaching in her own classroom since her graduation from the Yukon Native Language Centre's training program last June. "I've graduated, but I'm just getting the feel of things, of being on my own," says Bellerose.

A member of the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation, she completed her three-year practicum under the guidance of experienced native language teacher Lorraine Allen.

Now she's responsible for teaching Southern Tutchone to grades 10 to 12 at Porter Creek Secondary School in the mornings and at F.H. Collins in the afternoons.

Linda Harvey is another recent graduate of the teacher training program, a member of Ta'an Kwach'an who was mentored by longtime teacher Bertha Moose.

Now she teaches part time in a new language program that she helped to develop at Hidden Valley Elementary School.

"This was a brand new program for my students, and it was new to me at the same time," she explains.

Now in their forties, both Bellerose and Harvey are part of a new crop of native language teachers who are beginning to take over from the generation that pioneered language teaching in Yukon schools.

Harvey's mentor, Bertha Moose, trained with Lorraine Allen, who herself trained with founding instructor Margaret Workman, who set up the first native language program at F.H. Collins and is now the Southern Tutchone language specialist at YNLC.

Harvey also has the support of her mother, Irene Smith, a fluent speaker and one of the Yukon's first native language teachers.

Passing on that knowledge from generation to generation of language teachers is not only a key ingredient in the success of the training program but is vital for the survival of Yukon languages, both Bellerose and Harvey say.

As a group of native language instructors pointed out in a report two years ago when the Education Act was being reviewed, "The future of our languages will be determined by the availability of trained instructors."

And that's why both Bellerose and Harvey recognize the importance of recruiting new instructor trainees who, like them, can reap the benefit of an established tradition of native language teacher training in the Yukon.

Harvey, who is also working on a degree in native language training offered jointly by YNLC and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is keenly aware that the ranks of fluent speakers are diminishing, and that she and Bellerose will one day be the teachers of the next generation of language instructors.

The fact that Hidden Valley now has a language program provides one more teaching position, and means that Harvey can not only pass on her language but can develop the skills needed to one day mentor a trainee herself.

"I'd really like to encourage others to get into teaching because that is where you really learn your language," says Harvey, who almost didn't apply for a trainee position three years ago because she didn't think her language skills were good enough.

"It's very exciting -- it's the fastest I've ever picked anything up, and I wanted to learn now while my mum is still alive," she adds.

"I'm not a fluent speaker, but I have both my mother and Ms. Workman to support me, and they've helped me a lot."

When she recently taught the class about landforms as one of the themes for the month, she added to the vocabulary in the curriculum guide until she had 20 or so words, from meadow to hill to canyon to clay cliffs.

Bellerose, who spoke her language fluently before she began kindergarten, loves the challenge of teaching and the fact that she is developing both her oral and literacy skills.

"Even a slash over a letter changes the tone and meaning of the word, and I'm just really fascinated by it," she says.

As for the teaching itself, "I love it, I really love it," she says. "Every day is different, and I like the interactions with the kids."

Both women recognize that their enthusiasm for teaching their languages owes a great deal to the support and training they received from experienced language instructors.

"There's nothing like the support of another teacher to make classroom teaching run smoothly," says Bellerose, noting that one of the challenges is to overcome students' initial resistance.

"The very first week or so, they say, 'Oh, I can't do this. It's too hard.'

But by the time they've finished a semester, she says, they've mastered the basics and are eager for more.

"And I say, 'Who said they can't do this?' " she laughs.

Then, she points out, the students start to prick up their ears when they hear the language spoken at home or elsewhere, and the language learning begun in the classroom can continue in other settings.

Another challenge is learning the different dialect variations that exist among speakers of Southern Tutchone.

For example, students sometimes come in and tell Bellerose that their parents say "medzi" for caribou, whereas in Bellerose's own Aishihik dialect the word is "udzi".

Those dialectal variations don't prevent speakers of different dialects from communicating with one another, and students are encouraged to use what they know rather than adopt a uniform way of speaking.

"Margaret Workman always encourages us to pick up on the different dialects," says Harvey.

"She says, 'You're going to need to know all of the dialects.' "

That's a daunting task for new teachers, but both Bellerose and Harvey are eager to keep learning in order to help preserve their language and the knowledge of traditional culture it contains.

"We're all aware of the loss of our most fluent speakers, and of the need to pass on the knowledge to the next generation," says Harvey.

"We need more young people getting involved in learning their languages and hopefully becoming interested in teaching, and we need more trainee positions in the schools for those young people."

Apart from the importance of passing on the language, there's the joy of sharing a passion for learning with the students, she adds.

"It's like opening up a window or a door, or looking in a bright room."