Most students take classes in a second language during high school, but one Bristol Bay polyglot took it to another level. Jalen Konukpeok, an 18-year-old from New Stuyahok learned four languages fluently before graduating from Mt. Edgecumbe High School in May.
Konukpeok is Russian Orthodox, and his faith is a key factor behind his drive to learn languages.
“I’ve always been inspired by St. Innocent, apostle to America. He was one of the first missionaries to come to Alaska, and he provided a written language for most of the people in Alaska,” Konukpeok said.
English is his first language. Yup’ik is his second, which his grandmother taught him when he was four years old. At eight years old, he began to learn Russian to better understand the Russian Orthodox liturgy and teachings. By a mix of school classes, conversation with friends and practice with the computer program Rosetta Stone, Konukpeok has become fluent in Yup’ik, Russian, Inupiaq and Tagalog. He has also learned some Mandarin, Tlingit, Alutiiq, Unangam, Romanian and Greek.
While Konukpeok mostly puts these languages to use at church and among friends and family, he has also utilized them more publicly. Konukpeok was the Bristol Bay area youth representative for the First Alaskans Institute in 2015. That year he had the chance to use the Alaska Native languages he is learning at the Elders and Youth Conference and the AFN Annual Convention.
Over the years, Konukpeok has developed daily habits to help him maintain vocabulary and fluency.
“I try to speak it every day. I have different friends of different nationalities. I speak to them through text every day. It keeps the language there,” Konukpeok said.
This fall he is attending the University of Alaska Anchorage to study either small business administration or accounting. For him, learning languages is a way of connecting. As he meets more people of diverse backgrounds in his new community, Konukpeok is looking forward to putting the language skills he has cultivated to work.