Indigenous languages throughout North America are teetering on extinction. In Southeast Alaska, less than 200 people can speak Tlingit, Haida, or Tsimshian. But a Tlingit language expert suggests indigenous language loss can be prevented by addressing it at three levels.
Lance Twitchell says it’s time for a dramatic shift in the way Alaskans look at endangered languages, like Tlingit. Twitchell is an assistant professor of Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast. “Sometimes we say the language is dying, we don’t have many speakers. And some of these things get so insurmountable in your mind that you don’t really know where to start,” he says.
The first place to start, Twitchell says, is at the individual level. He says it’s important to speak as much as you can on a daily basis:
“I tell students, ‘Find something that that’s the only thing you speak Tlingit to – dog, cat, steering wheel, shower head, mirror – and make that switch.’”
Since the 1800s, Alaska Natives have experienced discrimination, forced assimilation, and boarding schools that prohibited children from speaking their language. Twitchell says due to post-traumatic stress disorder and intergenerational trauma, many students of Tlingit have a fear of failing or being chastised:
“Our grandparents experienced great violence for our language, our parents experienced great neglect with our language, we are trying to look at all those things so that our children and grandchildren will just speak.”
Learning the language is an act of healing, Twitchell says. At an individual level, it’s not about changing the world, but by trying to speak a Tlingit word every day.
The next step is making a dramatic shift at the community level. One way to do this is by implementing language into place. “When I want to Hawaii, I came off the plane and the first thing I heard was Hawaiian, and I thought, ‘That’s what we need to do,’” Twitchell says. “We’re trying to put Tlingit on the ferries, so that when you get on the ferry and you’re pulling into Hoonah, you can hear Tlingit telling you about this place Xunaa.”
Twitchell says community also means surrounding yourself with other Tlingit speakers and doing everything with them, “You guys shop together, you eat together, you do a lot more things together, and it’s a challenge.”
Rebuilding an endangered Native language also requires non-speakers. Twitchell advises non-speakers to be encouraging and supportive of those trying to speak a second language.
Twitchell says it’s up to the community to make room for Tlingit through the implementation of language immersion spaces, like a Tlingit daycare or a community center where only Tlingit is spoken:
“If you want to learn French, you can go to France. If you want to learn Spanish, you can go to different countries. If you want to learn Tlingit, you have to manufacture a place where Tlingit really exists.”
The state also must be involved in the rebuilding of a language, Twitchell says. Part of this involves admission. “We see a trail of responsibility that does go to federal governments, state governments, and religious organizations as far as what has put us in this situation with our languages,” Twitchell says. “So there has to be conscious efforts made to reverse language shift.”
Linguist Alice Taff says the language resurgence in Southeast Alaska is part of a worldwide movement against language loss, “Every nation in this planet has small language communities that are standing their ground against language loss. And it’s a relatively new phenomenon that there is a pushing back from within the communities saying, ‘This is us and we are going to use our own voices.’”
Of the estimated 20,000 Tlingit people in the world, Twitchell says only 140 can speak the language. He says the dramatic shift that needs to be made at the individual, community, and state levels is not a matter of tolerating Tlingit speaking but embracing it.