Carrying the torch for native languages

Jessica Denny, Ahtna language trainee

They're the graduating class of the next generation of native language teachers, sitting a little nervously in front of their fellow trainees, elders and instructors in a large book-filled classroom at the Yukon Native Language Centre.

Amanda Workman, Mary Jane Allison, Ragene Blackjack, Bessie Cooley and Jessica Denny are all completing their third and final year of training, and will graduate as full-fledged native language teachers next spring. They represent four different native languages – Southern Tutchone, Northern Tutchone, Tlingit, and the Alaskan language of Upper Ahtna. Bessie Cooley, a member of the older generation who grew up in the traditional way, is the only fluent speaker in the group.

What they all do have in common is a passionate commitment to preserving and passing on their language. For Bessie Cooley, who teaches in Teslin, the challenge of teaching her native language lies in the fact that she learned in a home setting, but now must find ways to bring the language into the classroom and teach in limited time segments. “I have them for 35 minutes a day, which is a short time frame,” she says, “and once they leave the classroom it's back to English.”

Bessie remembers learning Tlingit on the trapline, “twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” and kept her language despite attending residential school because her father told her she would need it to communicate with her mother, who spoke only Tlingit.

For Jessica Denny, who teaches in Chistochina, a small village in the Copper River region of Alaska, the biggest challenge she faces is the fact that the parents of her students don't know the language, and therefore aren't able to provide reinforcement of the lessons at home. “The kids aren't able to use the language at home as much as if their parents could speak it, or took classes in it,” she says. “That would be easier.”

Amanda Workman describes developing her knowledge of her Southern Tutchone language as her biggest challenge. Fluency, she says, is “a goal, but not something that's going to happen overnight.”

She possesses a powerful role model in her grandmother, Margaret Workman, who has retired after a long and distinguished career as founding Southern Tutchone language instructor at F.H. Collins and Southern Tutchone specialist at the Yukon Native Language Centre.

“You really have to set little goals for yourself so you don't lose your focus,” says Workman, who teaches with mentor Bertha Moose at Takhini Elementary. “For example, if there's a word that I think of that's not being used in the classroom, then I come up to the Language Centre with a list of words I want to learn. Goals like that inspire me to keep my language up.”

Mary Jane Allison, like Workman, must also work to develop her knowledge of Southern Tutchone, a language she tries to use with her family, including two sisters who are also interested in speaking it. “I've also got my mentor there in the classroom with me every day, so I can say ‘How do you say this word again?' and she's able to tell me. I'm very fortunate that way.”

Allison's mentor is Lorraine Allen, a veteran native language teacher with whom Allison team-teaches at Porter Creek Secondary and F.H. Collins. “If I come across a word that she doesn't know, she'll approach her elders and she'll obtain the word and bring it back."

Allison says that her biggest challenge, however, is the fact that she's not much older than the students she teaches. “I was 19 when I started, two years ago, I had just graduated, and I was back as a teacher at the same school I'd just graduated from.

“I had to set boundaries as a teacher. I had to dress—as my partner described it once—as if I was a curtain! Very conservative, a blazer and white shirt and slacks. Otherwise I just looked like another student.”

Ragene Blackjack, who teaches at Tantalus School in Carmacks with veteran instructors Amy Billy and Grace Wheeler, says she's gained enormous confidence during her two years of training. “When I first started I was really shy about speaking in front of anyone because I thought somebody would laugh at me if I said a word the wrong way.”

Yukon First Nation languages are tonal—different tones affect the meaning of a word. “One little tone down and you change a word completely, so you could be saying a totally different thing,” explains Blackjack, whose language is Northern Tutchone. “But now teaching in front of a group doesn't bother me the way it did at the beginning."

Denny agrees that the issue of confidence is a big one. “When I look back, it seems I didn't know much at all. Now it's like wow, I'm so impressed with myself.

“The first time I started teaching in the classroom it was really hard, having that position of authority—especially when you have family members in your class. But in my first workshop here we talked about professionalism and maintaining control of your classroom, so that helped a lot.”

Bessie Cooley remembers that, when she started teaching, “I would throw a bunch of work at my students. I tended to overload them. I would give them a little bit of work and then think, ‘That's not enough, I'd better give them some more.' But it's too much to take in at one time. Coming here, I've learned to develop short lessons and use lots of repetition. I've learned to slow down a little bit.”

Blackjack explains that “You look at a sentence and you think it's easy to learn, but then you've got to look at the child's point of view too. You're throwing all this stuff at them that they've probably never ever heard before. And you expect them to pick it up and learn it just like that because you know it. That's where the repetition comes in—you really really need that.”

That's also where the YNLC's training program, which brings together trainees who speak different native languages, pays dividends, they say. The trainees become the students in demonstration lessons taught by their fellow trainees, which means they're regularly reminded just what it's like to be faced with an unfamiliar language. The language and literacy instruction they've received, as well as lessons in teaching methodology, have been crucial, all the trainees say.

“It's given me a wider knowledge of the language—for example, native language sentence structure,” says Workman. “It's also given me information about the way the school system works, about who we need to talk to if we have a problem. And we've had the opportunity to meet with the Education Minister and officials from the department when they've been guests here.”

Allison notes that only five new trainee positions were created the year she started. “That makes me realize how special we are,” she says. “We're diamonds in the rough, really, and we're slowly being polished off and showcased.”

Denny notes that, in her community in Alaska, the big worry is what's going to happening the next 10 years, given that only a handful of fluent speakers remain. “We're trying to document and preserve what we can. But at the same time, as a teacher you have to focus on what you're doing right now.”

The same situation exists in the Yukon, as Blackjack points out." There's a lot of weight on my shoulders when I really think about it. If we don't grab onto our language, we're going to lose it. I would like to be able to talk to my kids in Northern Tutchone the way my grandma does with me and have them understand me and be able to speak it.”

All the trainees agree that it's vital to find ways to challenge their students and keep them interested. “They want to learn the language," says Denny, “but they don't always want to take the steps needed to learn it. Learning a language is hard work.” But, adds Blackjack, “I've known for a long time that this is what I wanted to do. Even growing up, I knew I really wanted to learn my language, and teaching is one of the ways that I'm getting it back.”

Mary Jane Allison isn't wasting any time promoting the use of Southern Tutchone in her school. Until this year, students in Whitehorse who completed the elementary native language program had to wait until Grade 10 to resume studying their language. “That meant that Grade 8 and 9 students used to forget what they'd learned at the elementary level and lost interest in the language, ” Allison explains. But as of this year, those students can take Southern Tutchone at Porter Creek Secondary with Allison, who has a total of 26 students in her two Grade 8 classes.

“The first day I asked them why they wanted to learn the language. And I got a lot of in-depth responses, even though they're only in Grade 8. One girl became very emotional and said that her grandma on her deathbed wanted her to speak the language. A lot of the students said their parents or grandparents wanted them to learn, and they wanted to live up to that. I was really surprised by that. I thought they'd just say it was better than French.”

Only this year, says Allison, did she feel less burdened by the task of preserving her language. “Now that I've got these grade eights, they're letting me know that they want to learn the language and they have a legitimate reason and they'll put the effort into it. Now I feel less like I'm being crushed by this huge task that I don't think I can fulfill on my own. I can spread it around.”

Her goal now is to offer a Grade 9 program as well so that “there can be a continuous stream of language training from early elementary to Grade 12,” says Allison. “And that way you can teach the real hierarchy of the language—the grammar, how to read, how to write—so that they might be somewhat fluent by the time they graduate.”

Workman says that one of the ways they're promoting the language at her school—Takhini Elementary—is to teach staff members some words in Southern Tutchone so that the children can use these words in other classes. “For example, when they take attendance, the children can say ‘I'm here' in the language. And the staff are interested. That makes the children feel more comfortable because the teachers know what they're saying.”

Workman also gives the example of another language teacher, Stephen Reid at Elijah Smith Elementary, who teaches Southern Tutchone words over the intercom every morning. “He explains in English what they mean,” says Workman, “so there's lots of little ways you can use to promote the language.”

Workman's grandmother, Margaret Workman, is attending the training session and says it makes her happy to see younger students getting into the language learning and starting to teach, though she'd like to see more young men involved too.

Young as most of these trainees are, they're already looking to the future and to the potential teachers who might succeed them. One such candidate is Honalee Sanford, now in her first year as a teacher trainee, who just graduated from high school this year where she was Jessica Denny's star native language pupil.

The elders in attendance, including YNLC founding elder Gertie Tom, look on with justifiable pride as the panellists speak about their struggles and successes. “I myself had to become fluent, with many years of hard work,” says Anne Ranigler, YNLC's Northern Tutchone specialist who's attending the training session. “And I'm so appreciative that you're all going to carry on these beautiful languages. I'm so proud of you young people. You're terrific role models.”