WCA offers free Tlingit language classes for adults

On the second day of the Wrangell Cooperative Association's new Tlingit language program, instructor Virginia Oliver stood next to a whiteboard nearly twice her height, covered in Tlingit words and phrases, and introduced herself to her students. "Virginia you xat duwasáakw." My name is Virginia. "Wáasáiduwa sáakw?" What is your name?

She worked her way around the packed classroom, helping each student introduce themselves and rewarding correct pronunciation with an enthusiastic "yak'ei!"

Oliver, who is Wrangell's only fluent speaker, has offered Tlingit classes to high school and middle school students since she and WCA councilmember Luella Knapp developed the program in 2016. The WCA's new classes, which are geared toward adult beginners and open to all community members, are the first of their kind in Wrangell.

The new program uses funds from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, a federal initiative that invested $1.75 billion into Alaska Native and American Indian communities nationwide. The Administration for Native Americans distributed portions of this funding to tribal governments, including the WCA, through Native Language Preservation and Maintenance Emergency grants. These grants were designed to "ensure the survival and continuing vitality of Native American (and Alaska Native) languages," according to the organization's website.

Students can look forward to free lunches, storytelling from visiting elders and a culminating Tlingit bingo game, featuring "pretty significant prizes purchased from local stores to support our local businesses," said tribal administrator Esther Aaltséen Reese.

The grant funds one year of classes for 20 students. "We'll keep an eye out for additional funding to be able to continue the classes beyond a year," Reese said.

This program is one piece of the WCA's ongoing cultural revitalization effort. "The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted the state of the Tlingit language," Reese said. Elders were lost due to the pandemic, and "due to their passing, knowledge was lost." Most fluent speakers are elders in their 70s and 80s, making them particularly vulnerable to the virus, explained Oliver.

During class last Thursday, Oliver recalled a Tlingit speaker in Wrangell who had died during the pandemic. Elders like her should be treated "like gold," she said. "She is a library. When that library burns down, she is gone."

Oliver takes care to incorporate song, storytelling and other cultural knowledge into her classes. "If you're teaching the language, you have to teach about the culture," she said.

Reese also believes in the interconnectedness of language and culture. For her, learning Tlingit provides a connection to home. By studying the language, she is following the example of her grandfather, who was forced to speak English at boarding school but went on to become a professor of Tlingit. "Language is an integral part of our culture," she said. "For me, it feels really rewarding to be a part of bringing that back."

Sitting in class, listening to the language spoken aloud, she was reminded of her childhood home, where her mother would speak to her in a combination of English and Tlingit.

The language is classified as "critically endangered" by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. There are about 500 speakers in the United States and Canada, but less than 60 of them are fluent, according to reports from the Fairbanks-based Alaska Native Language Center.

But focusing only on the gravity and magnitude of the language revitalization project can distract from the parts of language learning that are beautiful, rewarding and fun. X'unei Lance Twitchell, a professor of Alaska Native languages at University of Alaska Southeast, encourages students not to get caught up in "dying language syndrome."

The prognosis for critically endangered languages is not fatal. Across the globe, communities have embarked on successful revitalization efforts using techniques similar to those the WCA is employing. Native Hawaiians are establishing language-immersion preschools. The Cornish language, which was once fully extinct, now boasts around 500 speakers thanks to the Celtic Revival. The most famous example is Hebrew, which was spoken rarely and used primarily for religious purposes around 200 CE, according to a 1963 article by linguist Chaim Rabin. Today, it is spoken by 9 million people worldwide.

"Speak it everywhere you go," Twitchell wrote on his Tlingit language blog. "It does not matter if anyone else can understand you. It does not matter if you are making mistakes. What matters is you are trying and you are creating the language in your life."

Both Twitchell and Oliver acknowledge that learning Tlingit can be challenging.

There is no evidence to suggest that any language is objectively more difficult than any other - children always start speaking at around 12 to 18 months of age regardless of the language they're speaking in. But for people familiar with English, learning Tlingit means discovering roughly 30 new sounds, according to a 1993 article by Sealaska Heritage Foundation's Richard Dauenhauer. There are four different versions of the "k" sound, for example, which can be glottalized, rounded or pinched in the mouth and throat to create a variety aural effects.

Another challenge students often face, Oliver explained, is the lack of immersion opportunities. "If you wanted to learn Mandarin Chinese, you could go to China," but because so few people are fluent in Tlingit, it can be difficult to practice conversation. "You need to find someone to talk to," she said. "A lot of the old elders, they talk to their pets."

Learning the language is "a full-time job if you're not born with it," said Oliver, but she knows that learning and teaching Tlingit is her calling.

"There are over 200 second language learners such as myself who are teaching wherever we can," she said. "If you give us a room to teach in, we will teach. We are charged to do it."

Classes are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon in the Wrangell Cooperative Association's cultural center on Front Street. Lunch is provided. For enrollment information, contact WCA at 907-874-4303 or email receptionist.wca@gmail.com.

People who would like to learn but are not available during class times can visit tlingitlanguage.com for resources like lesson plans, quizzes, recordings, vocabulary lists and more.


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