Why Some Alaskans Are Learning The Tlingit Language

Participants of the Tlingit Language Learners Group point to the ceiling during an exercise called Total Physical Response. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Participants of the Tlingit Language Learners Group point to the ceiling during an exercise called Total Physical Response. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

A group of people in Juneau spend an hour every Monday practicing Tlingit. They bring dictionaries and flashcards, look at handouts and do language exercises. But this isn’t a class.

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An informal group that meets at the Downtown Public Library was started by Tlingit language students who understand that learning the language also means teaching it to as many people as possible.

Seventeen people sit around a table practicing sounds of the Tlingit language. They’re watching a YouTube video made by X̱’unei, or Lance Twitchell. He teaches Tlingit at University of Alaska Southeast and is a vocal proponent of language revitalization.

But Twitchell’s voice over the speakers is the only trace of a Tlingit language teacher in the room.

The group was formed last spring, a result of a brainstorming session on how to bring Tlingit language and culture to the community in an accessible way. One of its founders Richard Radford has been studying Tlingit for two and a half years.

“We’re all learners and so it is kind of like a class of students getting to sort of call the shots,” Radford says.

Which means the group can go in many different directions.

“Anybody can share pretty much anything. We learned how to introduce ourselves in Persian a little while ago from someone coming in. We’re really open to that. Multiculturalism is a really a big part of this,” he says.

Radford says the group relies heavily on books, dictionaries, YouTube videos and handouts made by more experienced Tlingit speakers.

“There are elders and linguists and artists and culture bearers and professors and other language learners and all sorts of people from all over the place who provide us with so much. We’re just standing on the shoulders of giants,” Radford says.

The group is made up of regulars and others who drop in because they’re curious.

At age 56, Nancy Keen has made it a goal to learn Tlingit. Her grandfather was fluent, but her mother never spoke a word. Keen’s been drumming and singing clan songs with Southeast dance groups for five years and that’s spurred her interest.

“You have to want to know what you’re singing about. And you have to want to know that you should pronounce this stuff correctly because the language is just so subtle in nature that it’s really easy to say something wrong when you don’t mean to,” Keen says.

Richard Radford (right) is one of the founding members of the Tlingit Language Learners Group. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Richard Radford (right) is one of the founding members of the Tlingit Language Learners Group. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Tlingit is a tonal language. Similar sounding words that mean drastically different things are distinguished by an inflection of the voice. The group practices these similar sounding words:

“Eech” means reef while “éechʼ” describes something compact and heavy.

Keen says she can’t put full sentences together yet so she’s working hard on memorizing sounds and pronunciations.

She appreciates the group’s passion for making the Tlingit language so available.

“There was a lot of talk about building language nests and now it’s starting to actually come to light, and so that’s how we’re going to make sure we can continue and nurture this language,” Keen says.

The end of the hour comes quickly. A group participant suggests another activity.

“So if anybody wants to stick around and do some extra stuff for another 5 minutes or so, there’s some stuff that we can do that’s kind of more interactive,” says David Sheakley. He’s running an exercise called Total Physical Response, or TPR.

“Instead of just listening to the words and saying them back, you actually have to act them out with your body. It makes connections between your muscles and muscle memory with what you hear and also with what you say,” Sheakley explains.

Nancy Keen holds out Tlingit flash cards. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Nancy Keen holds out Tlingit flash cards. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Sheakley’s family on his father’s side is all Tlingit. Many of them spoke the language and helped spread it. Now, Sheakley sees it as his responsibility.

Like Keen and Sheakley, some in the group are Alaska Native. Radford is not one of them

“I’m definitely European descended. There’s a term dleit káa that gets used sometimes,” he says.

But, as someone living in Alaska, he feels a responsibility to learn the local language.

“We live in a very multicultural state and sometimes people lose sight of that, myself included. I mean we live in Lingít Aaní and I think that we should be learning the language of this place,” Radford says.

Outside of the learners group and class, Radford says he speaks Tlingit “mostly to my cats. I talk to them a lot. I’ve branched out to humans, too.”

Most of the time, he speaks to other learners.

“When we see each other in public it’s pretty much required. We do things online, there are a lot of things on social media. Not as many public events, like we’d like to do this, ideally, every night of the week in town, have this keep going. This is just a Monday,” Radford says.

After the TPR exercise, the group session ends, but the conversation carries on.