Workshop aims to boost Native languages

Education director says new process will provide framework for teachers

Posted: Thursday, February 05, 2009

Sealaska Heritage Institute is looking to reinvent the wheel of how the indigenous languages of Southeast Alaska are taught.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

New education director Jim MacDiarmid is hosting a two-day workshop Wednesday and today on a developmental language process he has created to help educators instill the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian languages into the long-term memories of their students. The nonprofit educational and cultural arm of Sealaska Corp. has been at the forefront of Alaska Native language curriculum development in recent years, but MacDiarmid said incorporating this new process will help provide a better framework for teachers to present the languages to the students.

"They had a lot of spokes but they didn't have a wheel," he said about the previously developed curriculum for Native language teachers. "So what we're providing them with now is a wheel. Everything (Sealaska Heritage Institute) developed before fits into that wheel."

About 50 educators, curriculum developers and fluent speakers gathered at Centennial Hall for the workshop on Wednesday, nearly double the number organizers had expected. People of all ages from across Southeast Alaska and as far away as Anchorage and Yukon Territory, Canada, attended the workshop, which MacDiarmid said is the biggest such regional language workshop of its kind in more than a year.

MacDiarmid, author of "Replacing Thing-a-ma-jig - the Developmental Language Process," said he has spent the last 35 years developing the process that is adaptable to kindergarten though 12th-grade classes of any language.

He said the process encourages educators to teach students in kindergarten through third grades solely with basic listening and speaking exercises.

"One of the difficult things is to convince people to not use the printed form too soon," MacDiarmid said. "A lot of people were trained in literacy, and so there's this inclination to introduce the printed form of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian to the kids early. And in this process we are trying to pull them back from that."

As the students age, they are introduced to basic reading and writing in grades four through six, and then move onto listening comprehension, creative speaking, reading comprehension and creative writing in their middle and high school years. MacDiarmid said it's a process that is designed to imbed the language into the memories of kids, using a variety of fun activities along the educational progression.

"We're not necessarily going to produce proficient speakers through this program, but if the kids develop a liking for the programs and enjoy the lessons and so on, that sets the stage for them later in life, perhaps, to be more motivated to go on and learn Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian."

Shirley Kendall, 76, a Tlingit teacher at East High School and the University of Alaska Anchorage originally from Hoonah, said she has attended a workshop hosted by MacDiarmid before and is a fan of his developmental language process.

"I use his methods in the classroom and it works really well for the Native culture, the style that he has and he advocates," she said. "And I've proven that it works with high school."

MacDiarmid, who stressed that he is not a linguist and does not speak the Tlingit, Haida or Tsimshian languages, said his understanding is that the indigenous languages of Southeast Alaska are in "desperate" times with many of the fluent speaking elders passing away. However, he said there is a growing number of 20-somethings who are engaged in the language.

Kendall said she believes the number of Tlingit language teachers has increased in recent years, but said few of them are state-certified educators, which makes it more difficult for the languages to thrive in the school districts.

Hans Chester, a "semi-fluent" Tlingit speaker and kindergarten and first grade teacher at Glacier Valley Elementary School, said the gathering of so many people dedicated to teaching the indigenous languages of Southeast Alaska sends a strong message to the communities across the region about the revitalization effort.

"It's taken awhile to grow in numbers, but we're here and there's a big interest and there are many students learning or hearing languages spoken in the schools where it was taken from," he said. "I think that is very empowering, not just for ourselves, but for all the communities to see the efforts."

The strong turnout for the workshop is evidence that the Alaska Native language revitalization efforts are proving to be successful, Chester said.

"This is like all the efforts coming into fruition so we can branch back out to our own communities and take the knowledge we've learned here and disperse it," he said.

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at

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