Sealaska, UAS join to shore up Haida language

Many agree existing number of fluent speakers is very low

Posted: Sunday, October 16, 2005

The survival of a language needs your help.

A free Haida language course, sponsored by Sealaska Heritage Institute and the University of Alaska Southeast, will begin Monday at 6 p.m. in the fourth-floor conference room at the Sealaska building downtown. The 5212-hour course will be split up over a three-week period - Oct. 17-21, Nov. 7-11 and Dec. 12-16 - with three-and-a-half-hour classes each night.

"The whole goal of the classes is to really get the people who are interested in the language and to give them a grounding in the language - to give them enough ability ... that they can begin to use it on a daily basis," said Jordan Lachler, a linguist for Sealaska Heritage Institute who will be teaching the course.

The number of fluent Haida speakers in Alaska varies depending on whom you ask, but all agree the numbers are shockingly low. Lachler said he estimates five or six people in the state can be considered truly fluent in the language.

"There is about another half-dozen or so who can understand the language but have a limited ability to speak it," Lachler said. "We're definitely at a really critical point of keeping the language alive."

Jeane Breinig, a Haida originally from Kassan and an associate professor of English at UAS, estimated the number of speakers at a slightly higher level than Lachler, but only by a few.

"It's very low, because most of the speakers are 75-plus and anyone who is younger than that age are not at the same level as our elders," she said.

Breinig said she hopes people will show up, of all ages and ethnicities, to help preserve the rich and dynamic language.

"I think it's extremely important. If we're really to do anything, this is really the last chance we have because the speakers are getting so old."

Lachler said the survival of the language really depends on the level of participation.

"It really comes down to a numbers game," he said. "The more dedicated students we can find throughout Southeast Alaska, whether they live in a village or live in a city, ... the better chance we have at keeping the language alive."

SHI has been developing a language immersion curriculum over the last several years for kindergarten through second grade with the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The language course sponsored by SHI and UAS will be using a technique called Total Physical Response that focuses on commands and listening to familiarize the students with the audio aspects of the language.

Breinig said the students will be listening a lot and learning commands like how to sit and stand before they learn the literacy aspects of the language.

"Just like when you learn as a child, you hear the language for a long time before you start talking it," she said. "It's really quite fun because you're moving, you're not just sitting and being lectured at."

Haida classes have been introduced in the Kassan and Hydaburg schools, as well as in the Ketchikan Head Start Program, mostly aimed at kindergarten through second-grade classes. UAS has also offered Haida classes at the Juneau and Ketchikan campuses, and university students are able to earn four academic credits for this course by enrolling and paying regular UAS charges. The course, however, is free for all to attend and participate.

Breinig and Lachler both said they hope people will attend who are even the least bit curious about the course or the language.

"I would encourage people to come to the first week, and you might be surprised and might want to stay," Breinig said.

Lachler concurred.

"It's something everybody can do. A lot of people think - I could never learn Haida or learn a second language at all. But that's not true," he said.

Breinig said she doesn't want people in the future to say they lived when the language was still in existence but that's it's not around anymore.

"Everything we're doing, 100 years from now hopefully our decendants will look back and say, Yep, I'm sure glad they did that."

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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