The beauty of language learning and the myth of letting go



ch’u tle yóo g’eiwú yáxh áwé xhat kamdlixís’

— Khaaklighé


then it was like I was tangled up in a fish net

— Norman James


I was helping coordinate a workshop this summer in Whitehorse and Teslin, and one of our elders gave us the above phrase. We were talking about some of the finer details of Tlingit grammar, and he said this to help us smile as we waded through some unknown waters. There were about 15 people who spent six hours per day for 11 out of 12 days working on language learning, sharing, and documentation. We laughed hard at jokes in both English and Tlingit, and we had the rare chance to step out and see how much an English-only world imprisons and separates us from each other, our true selves, and our ancestors.

There is nothing really mystical about Tlingit, and nothing really terrible about English. But there is a major problem when we cannot seem to find a way back to co-existence of language and place. Sometimes we hear about how hard it is to learn another language after reaching a certain age, or we buy into a concept that taking attention away from other things to learn a language that actually belongs here will somehow leave us further behind. These are myths that keep us from fully engaging in multilingualism.

The concept of social and racial progress are so deeply embedded in the fabric of our society and its Euroamerican based philosophies that many of us cannot see that the limitations of monolingualism in a place where multilingualism thrived for tens of thousands of years. But the beauty of the present is that we still have time to change. We still can create a place where we can hear languages that were born here living and breathing once again.

On a daily basis I am lonely for language. I am longing for a time when we have a place where our language can live and we can fill it with great things; we can make sure that our elders have somewhere good to go and speak the language they want to speak; we can make sure that our children know that they can be multilingual as their ancestors have been for a long, long time. We can collectively figure out that there is a better ending to this series of stories that are being written about place, people, contact, and genocide.

At the University of Alaska Southeast the motto is often “one University, three campuses” and we think about strengthening the links between Sitka, Ketchikan, and Juneau. Well this semester, thanks to the hard work of the Ketchikan campus, we will have “one University, three indigenous languages” as the Ketchikan Indian Community works in partnership with UAS in offering classes in Haida and Tsimshian languages. In addition, we are actively working with local and regional organizations such as the Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, Sealaska Heritage Institute, Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, the Alaska State Legislature, Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, Hoonah Totem Corporation, Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Carcross-Tagish First Nations, Teslin Tlingit Council, Organized Village of Kasaan, Tlingit Readers, and the Łingít Language Champions to form lasting partnerships that make access to language learning and materials easier for those interested in learning our languages and making sure that the languages are living on the land with group activities, use of modern technology, and making use of the massive libraries of language materials developed by previous generations of language learners, teachers, and documenters. You can take classes in Tlingit and Haida from anywhere through distance learning, and the several of the Tlingit classes are now being broadcast on YouTube for enrolled students to review and interested language learners to utilize.

So my question to individuals and organizations is this: what can you do to help make our communities better? How can you join the team? We are basically at the century mark of a time when governments and churches teamed up to kill off Alaska Native languages, and they have nearly succeeded, but we will be the ones who decide if that is what we want to happen. In the end, it is a question of humanity, of looking at each other and deciding that it is worthwhile to see what happens when we really get to know each other, when we reach across and heal the wounds that came from the formation of this place we know as Alaska and the United States of America.

It is not often that we have such chances for open reflection and change. And we will never have the chances that we do now to create real and positive shift for our three languages. We can transform our communities and our region into a place that values diversity and the strength it takes to sustain complex and wonderful languages, stories, songs, dances, and senses of identity. These are ancient languages, but they are needed now as much as ever so we can diversify the way we collectively see the world and each other.

When we all come to this table, we will see that there is less between us than we imagined. The list of partners right now is dominated by Alaska Native entities, but this is not just an Alaska Native problem, so please step up and be a leader in this community as we stand up for langauge revitalization. If we allow things to go unchanged, and fail to see the beauty of learning entire new ways of seeing the world, then we will fail our future and our past at the same time. If we cannot give ourselves over to the idea that something else, a co-existence of languages and place might actually be better, then we will abandon the notion that we are all created equal in this world.

Sometimes we have to just let ourselves go. I tell students of the language that as often as I tell myself. When we really become a speaker of another language, we will find that we do not have to translate concepts because we can think about them simultaneously in multiple perspectives. This is a hybrid existence. There is not one or the other because we are human beings. The idea of being human does not mean that we are all the same or should communicate the same. Sometimes this has been the most destructive myth of all: that a unification of languages and thought modes is progress. In fact, it is a decay that is killing people today. We do not need that any more. Acknowledgment is the first step, and embracing change is the next.

Our children deserve a chance to see a world where cultures do not try to wipe each other out here. We can control this space. We can make this world better just by giving up the comfort of knowing and being born all over again in a new way of thinking. Just imagine the possibilities. It is hard to do because you might not even know they are there, but I have seen the change in people, and believe in the changes that I have been asked to seek.

To support students at UAS for language study, you can donate to the “UAS Emma Marks Fund” and put “spendable + scholarships” in the check memo line, or call (907) 796-6566 to put it on a credit card. This goes directly to student tuition, visiting elders, and future workshop opportunities in Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. To become a part of the growing team for language learning and revitalization projects, contact us and we will see just how much we can create together.




Xh’unei - Lance A. Twitchell is Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast.


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