Institute immerses adults in Tlingit, Haida languages

Posted: Sunday, August 19, 2001

Volunteer assistant instructor John Palmes, speaking in Tlingit and sometimes searching for the right word to describe what he was doing, slipped a bead on a string.

The students even more hesitantly repeated the words as they accumulated beads on the bracelets they were making. Occasionally, teacher and elder Ethel Makinen repronounced Palmes' phrases to correct them, or elaborated on what he said, but always in Tlingit.

Bit by bit, bead by bead, Southeast Alaska Native languages are carried on at the Sealaska Kusteey Institute by threading fluent speakers with advanced learners and beginners.

The two-week summer program concluded its third year of operations Friday. It is funded by the Sealaska Heritage Foundation and held at the Auke Bay campus of the University of Alaska Southeast.

The number of students has grown from 40 to 60 to 100 over the years, said project assistant Jenny Gossman. About half of them teach as volunteers or certified staff in the public schools. A few are teen-agers or young adults. Some of the students from earlier years, such as Palmes, now assist as instructors.

One class helps fluent speakers learn the written language. Another helps teachers, who themselves may not know the Native language well, learn how to teach it to others.


Last year the program added classes in the Haida language and in arts such as Chilkat weaving and spruce root weaving. This year it began to use the immersion technique for some classes in Tlingit and Haida.

The idea of immersion is that students will begin to understand and think in the language if the teacher is interacting with them about something meaningful, said Roy Iutzi-Mitchell, a sociolinguist who directs the institute.

Iutzi-Mitchell, watching Palmes build sentences as he built bracelets Wednesday, said the overt focus was on the physical objects, not the language. Palmes' use of gestures and body language helped clarify new words, Iutzi-Mitchell added.

Teachers in immersion classes try not to use English, because they don't want students to be translating into the Native language. Teachers want them to think in the Native language, said Roby Littlefield, one of the instructors in a Tlingit immersion class at the institute and a teacher of Tlingit at Sitka High School.

She lugged over a box and pried off the lid to reveal to a visitor a stash of stuffed animals. "The tools of the trade," Littlefield said.

"This technique relies on using real things, real situations, real opportunities to learn language, rather than words on the board," she said.

Although Littlefield isn't fluent in Tlingit, she now feels she can engage her high school students in the language for their 90-minute class.

"The students are going to walk into my classroom and I'm going to entertain them in Tlingit," she said.

Adult students were laughing and squealing Thursday as a ball bounced around a sheet they held stretched out above the floor, in James McDiarmid's class on how to teach languages.

When the ball bounced off the sheet, or fell through one of the four holes, students near it had to speak a sentence in Tlingit about a drawn image. It's an activity that requires students to demonstrate basic speaking skills.

McDiarmid, an educator and author from Canada, is an expert on the development of language skills. Through fun activities that are tied to objects and movement, like the sheet toss, "language goes into long-term memory in a painless way," he said.

McDiarmid teaches that students learn a language through the stages of hearing and speaking it first, before reading and writing it.

"I can't wait to go home and do this with my kids," said Deborah Head, a cultural arts teacher in the Craig schools who added Tlingit to her lessons last year. "They're going to be scratching at my door saying, 'Let's play some games.'"

A matter of identity

Mark (Hans) Chester, 23, of Juneau, is perhaps the most fluent Tlingit speaker of his age group, suggested Iutzi-Mitchell.

But it wasn't instilled in him growing up. Chester's great-grandfather was of the last generation in his family to speak Tlingit, Chester said. His grandfather, who didn't learn the language, passed away before Chester was born. Chester said he grew up in Juneau knowing only a few Tlingit words, and his family felt the loss of their culture.

"Part of owning up to those deep emotions is to do something about it. And so not really knowing where I belonged in a society was part of it. I didn't feel I belonged anywhere," Chester said.

Language is part of a person's individual identity and group identity, said Iutzi-Mitchell.

"For anybody to function as a healthy, happy member of society, they need to be comfortable with who they are and where they came from," he said.

Chester has studied Tlingit for six years at UAS and at two of the institutes, and he helped teach a beginners' immersion class this summer.

Speaking Tlingit and attending language classes have brought him into contact with new people, some of whom turned out to be relatives. "Learning who my relatives are made me feel more complete. I do have grandparents," Chester said.

Another reason to preserve Native languages is many aspects of culture express themselves primarily or only through language, Iutzi-Mitchell said. Without the language, those aspects of the culture, such as traditional oratory, can't be passed on.

"That really has to be done in the Native language," he said.

There are more subtle links between language and thinking. In Tlingit, for example, the verb to hand someone something differs with what's being handed over.

The language "literally directs people's minds to be paying attention and perceiving aspects of the environment around them that English doesn't direct them to do," Iutzi-Mitchell said.

Tlingit is highly metaphorical, said Jeff Leer, a linguist at the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks and an instructor at the institute.

"The allusions weave together. They end up forming this giant web of associations that in fact embodies the world view," Leer said.

Finding ways to teach a new generation to be conversationally fluent is only one part of revitalizing Native languages. The other part, whose surface has barely been scratched, is to find reasons to speak the language.

"Even if you could snap your fingers and instill the language in the minds of young students, that wouldn't guarantee it would continue," Iutzi-Mitchell said. "The greater challenge is to create a habitat for the language."

He's thinking of "micro-habitats" such as language retreats where only Native languages are spoken, or families that speak their heritage language at home.

"People don't learn languages that are useless," Iutzi-Mitchell said. "They have to be useful."

Eric Fry can be reached at

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