Learning by doing

Native language institute works to stave off decline of traditional tongues

Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2003

Students in Donna May Roberts' class in Shim-al-gyack, the language of the Tsimshian Indians, point to the ground in unison, walk in place, rub their stomachs, make kissy sounds and generally do whatever she says.

It looks like an aerobics class, but that's the way Roberts teaches language, and it's becoming an important element in the Native language courses at Sealaska Heritage Institute's Kusteeyi program.

"Oh, you guys look like Olympic runners," Roberts, formerly of Metlakatla and now from Portland, Ore., told her students Tuesday evening.

Kusteeyi - held at University of Alaska Southeast campuses in Ketchikan in May and in Juneau for the past two weeks - teaches Southeast Native languages mostly by immersing students in the traditional tongues.

Juneau's Anita Moran, whose grandmother speaks Tlingit, is taking a beginning Tlingit class.

"We have the opportunity to communicate together in Tlingit," she said. "We attend a lot of potlatches, where they speak in Tlingit. It would be great to understand it."

Organizers and students at Kusteeyi hope to reinvigorate Tlingit, Haida and Shim-al-gyack at a time when fluent speakers are declining as elders die. There are an estimated 140 completely fluent speakers of Tlingit, six of Haida and six of Shim-al-gyack in Alaska, said Sealaska Heritage sociolinguist Roy Mitchell.

The program in Juneau attracted about 50 students from around Southeast to classes that included beginning Tlingit and Shim-al-gyack, how to teach language immersion, Tlingit public speaking for dormant speakers and master-apprentice team training.

"It's like a person who is wounded who is starting to feel better now," Paul Marks of Juneau said after Wednesday morning's public-speaking class.

"We weren't talking before. It's like we were in a coma. Now we're waking up. It's because of the younger people who are excited about it and asking. If it wasn't for them, why would we want to continue on?"

Roberts' teaching method, a variation on what's called total physical response, works by repeating phrases and movements as the silent students imitate her movements. In just the first 15 minutes of her class Tuesday, she gave well over a hundred instructions. She built on them by repeating them with variations, such as "point left," "point right," "point with one hand" and "point with two hands."

There's no time for students to daydream, and the teacher can see immediately if a student doesn't understand an instruction.

"It is a lot of energy on the part of the teacher, and a lot of language," Mitchell said. "Students need to be comprehending hundreds of times to sink into the subconscious mind."

The idea is to teach a second language the way people learn their first language. Young children hear the sounds of their language and come to understand the meanings before they speak the words themselves. And they learn language from their parents in real-life situations.

In Roberts' class, students also use workbooks illustrated with drawings of stick figures that enact movements. And then there's Mary Chapin Carpenter singing on the CD player about luck. That means it's time for Shim-al-gyack bingo, in which students put stones on stick-figure drawings that match the Native word for the action.

In the master-apprentice class, co-taught by Mitchell and Jordan Lachler, students learn how to pass on the language in one-on-one settings. It can be one way to teach a new generation of Native-language teachers.

Clara Peratrovich, a retired Tlingit-language teacher from Klawock, practiced the technique Tuesday with two other students and a family of stuffed-animal sea otters, one of whom sported a Tlingit scarf.

Peratrovich, with words and by nudging the otters, instructed the students to move the otters around as she spoke in Tlingit about the animals' family life.

"There's no one in our community anymore that would step forward" to teach Tlingit, Peratrovich said after class. "My value for the language is really high. I feel we have to have somebody continue the language teaching, so it won't die off."

Debbie Head, a cultural arts teacher in Craig, has been an apprentice to the master Peratrovich since September.

"She was as starving to share as I was starving to learn," Head said.

But adult learners are not the absorbent sponges that children are, she said. Kusteeyi is modeling proven learning techniques, "and they are making a big difference."

On Wednesday, in Nora Marks Dauenhauer's class for dormant Tlingit speakers - those who understand the language but perhaps stopped speaking it - students, mostly elderly, gave orations as beginning Tlingit speakers, mostly young people, listened.

Afterward, Catrina Mitchell, who coordinates Kusteeyi and is learning Tlingit, thanked the elder speakers.

"We're on a personal journey learning our language," she said. "One day, I'd like to stand before you and say more."

Sitka's Paul Jackson, one of Dauenhauer's students, said the young people perhaps didn't understand everything they heard in the orations.

But, he added, "We have hooked them. I don't think we should let them go."

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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