The Anchorage School District has immersion programs in languages like German, Spanish and Japanese. But until recently, there were no immersion programs for Alaska Native languages. A kindergarten class in Anchorage has taken the first step in a Yup’ik program this week, with plans to continue all the way through high school graduation.
In Lorina Warren’s kindergarten class at College Gate Elementary, students are learning the first letter of the Yup’ik alphabet: A (pronounced like ah).
The kids are sitting in a circle, passing a ball around and saying a, and then the word for ball: angqaq. While some of the students whisper in English to each other, Warren is only speaking Yup’ik.
It’s part of a new language immersion program where the students spend half of their day learning in Yup’ik. The classes are modeled after the Lower Kuskokwim School District, where Yup’ik is spoken more commonly. Warren teaches one class in the morning and another in the afternoon. The idea is that these kids will spend their entire school careers in a program like this, ending high school as fluent Yup’ik speakers. Warren sees teaching language as a way to preserve culture.
“I believe language is very important because that’s how our ancestors grew up speaking,” Warren said. “And right now we may have lost a lot but what we have right now, I think it’s important for these kids to learn it.”
College Gate principal Darrell Berntsen grew up in Old Harbor on Kodiak Island, and is Alutiiq. Berntsen regrets that he didn’t learn his native language as a child. Berntsen has seen firsthand just how fragile Native languages have become in the last few decades.
“My first wife… her grandmother was the last known Eyak speaker in the state of Alaska,” Berntsen said. “And when she passed, which unfortunately was about ten years ago, when she passed we know that the last person that had the knowledge of the Eyak language was gone.”
Berntsen says groups like the University of Alaska Fairbanks are working to preserve languages in a historical context, but that isn’t enough. He thinks the best way to ensure languages don’t die is by teaching children how to speak them fluently. He says the time was right to teach a Native language in the Anchorage School District.
“Over 11 different languages offered in the Anchorage School District,” Berntsen said. “This is the first one that represents a people of Alaska.”
Berntsen says typically in language immersion programs, the students start behind their peers, but eventually catch up and surpass those in more traditional schools.
“I think the people that got on board with this that are non-Native or non-Yup’ik understand that it doesn’t matter what language is being taught,” Berntsen said. “As long as they’re accessing two parts of their brain, their child is going to benefit from it in the long run.”
Back in the classroom, the students have moved on to numbers, rolling large dice, hoping to roll a one, or Atauciq. Warren says even though about half of the students in the class are Yup’ik, they all primarily speak English at home.
“They may speak Yup’ik but they’re speaking to their kids in English,” Warren said. “And I think having their kids in the Yup’ik program will make the parents try to speak to them in Yup’ik at home”
While currently there is only the kindergarten class in the immersion program, the plan is to add a new grade and instructor every year through high school graduation. Parents who want to send their children to the Yup’ik program enter the school district’s lottery system. The lottery for next year opens January 1st.