In early December 2012, Alaska Native language faculty members Alice Taff and Xh’unei Lance Twitchell led a workshop in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, for the Council for Yukon First Nations. They introduced the mentor-apprentice approach to five language teams during the three-day event. These teams included Northern Tutchone, Southern Tuchone, Han, Gwich’in and Tlingit languages. The traditional lands of the last three languages exist on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border; despite the current international boundary, it is important to keep up cross-border communications and activities in order to maintain the ancestral integrity of each language group.
The mentor-apprentice strategy pairs a fluent speaker with an adult learner; the pair spends 10 or more hours per week together doing routine activities, staying in the ancestral language the entire time. It is not easy. One person knows the ancestral language and the other does not. The concept is not to take a class, but live completely in the language. It takes practice and willpower to not use the English language, common to both people, when communicating. One of the keys to success is active dialogue between the mentor and apprentice, so that each session begins with a plan and is carried out through activities and with props. For example, an apprentice might call the mentor and say, “I am coming over in an hour. Can we talk about weather today?” and the mentor might respond with, “That is good. We can also talk about seasons, and what that means to us.” The idea is to have a solid outline of content beforehand, so there is little time without subjects or activities. Other ideas shared are playing games in the language, or looking through photo albums and having the mentor talk about memories.
The group worked on communicating with body language, using gestures in addition to the ancestral language, planning and carrying out “language immersion” sessions, setting language learning goals, keeping language journals, and using pictures to stimulate talk. Discussion topics also included brain development during language learning, the excellent ability of adults to learn languages, and the universal stages of natural (infant) language learning. They also talked about methods to implement language revitalization efforts in their communities and how to create jobs for language learners and teachers.
• Alice Taff is a Research Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast.