Haa shuká: Tlingit language apps connect past, present and future

Sealaska Heritage Institute's 'Tlingit Games' and 'Learning Tlingit' feature fluent speakers

A new app, Tlingit Games, brings you into the world of wildlife. Choose “Birds!” and you watch hummingbirds, kingfishers and Stellar’s Jays fly in and out of a wooded scene of other birds. Press any one of them and you hear the Tlingit pronunciation over a soundscape of bird song and calls.


When you get comfortable with the Tlingit words of different birds, you can take the quiz. Beginner Tlingit speaker Alfie Price, 49, and his 17-year-old daughter Katy have been competing against each other to see who can get a higher score.

“She’s been beating me pretty soundly, especially the birds,” Price said. “For some reason, I struggle with the birds.”

The other game offered on the app is ocean animals. Each quiz question shows a picture of an animal and asks, “Daa sáyá?” or “What is this?” Press a multiple choice option and you may get an affirming “Ayáx áwé” and move on to the next question. Get a not so affirming “Tléik’” and you have to choose a different option.

Price downloaded Tlingit Games and Learning Tlingit on Monday as soon as he heard about them on Facebook. Sealaska Heritage Institute developed the two free apps and released them last week.

Price, who’s Tlingit and Tsimshian, has been using Learning Tlingit on a daily basis. He started learning the language in April and goes to the Tlingit Language Learners Group on Monday nights at the downtown library. He’s grateful to receive help from practiced speakers, but rarely do fluent speakers attend the group, he said.

Now, with the apps, Price can hear fluent speakers say Tlingit words and phrases right from his phone.

“Pronunciations are a big deal. Our mouths are so used to saying English that it’s hard to adjust to Tlingit sounds. I will just repeat them over and over, hoping that my mouth will just be able to make these sounds easily if I just keep at it,” he said.

The pronunciations on Learning Tlingit are based on audio from curriculum SHI has already developed. It was education project coordinator Katrina Hotch’s job to listen to the audio tracks and cut them up into single vocabulary words, phrases and alphabet sounds, totalling about 300 entries total.

“This isn’t a complete app. There’s more content coming,” Hotch said Wednesday at SHI. She plans to continue adding new entries to the app over the next two years.

“For the first batch, I was trying to focus on things that people are wanting to do when they first start learning, things that I thought would be most useful to learners and people who are teaching to have their students go back and listen to.”

Vocabulary categories include numbers, family and geography. For phrases, you can hear and learn introductions, feelings, and statements like “Tlél xwasakú” or “I don’t know.”

SHI worked with Wostmann & Associates, starting in January, to develop the apps. Hotch said the apps make the Tlingit language more accessible.

“People are practically attached to their mobile devices,” she said. “If you’re waiting for the bus and you start playing Tlingit Games, you’re going to be hearing it that much more often and be able to retain the information better and just increase your vocabulary through increased usage.”

Price agreed, saying, “Our phones are always with us. You can hear some Tlingit instead of checking your Facebook or whatever.”

The voices you hear on the app belong to fluent speakers David Katzeek (Kingeisti), the late Johnny Marks (Kooteixtée) and Marsha Hotch (Guneiwtí). As SHI updates the app, it will include Nora Marks Dauenhauer (Keixwnéi), Fred White (Gunaak’w) and the late June Pegues (Aan Yax Saxeex).

Hotch’s work on the apps is contributing to others hearing and practicing the Tlingit language. But for Hotch herself — who describes herself as an intermediate Tlingit speaker — working on the project has profoundly affected her life.

“I get to hear these voices of people that I didn’t actually get to work with. Like I didn’t actually get to work with Johnny [Marks], but I kind of feel like I know him because I’ve heard his voice almost everyday at work here,” she explained. “A byproduct of working on these apps is I’ve started dreaming more in Tlingit, and that’s really exciting for me.”

Connecting generations is another important function of the app. Haa shuká, which means “our past, present, future,” is a core cultural value that helps guide the work SHI does, Hotch said.

“These apps have voices of people who have gone on, but people can hear it now and people in the future will be able to hear it. It’s literally that connection between the past, present and future.”

• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or lisa.phu@juneauempire.com.

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Wed, 05/23/2018 - 14:06

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