Officially there are 20 Alaska Native languages in the state. But fluent speakers continue to decline. That led then-Gov. Bill Walker to declare a linguistic emergency last year. Now, Tlingit elders are teaching young children early in a home-like environment, and they’re finding it more effective than the classroom.
The walls of the children’s gallery at the Haines Sheldon museum are lined with stuffed animals. Behind them is a mural of the Chilkat Valley. Mothers rock sleeping babies. Dinner is a steaming tray of mac and cheese cooling in the corner.
Language teacher Marsha Hotch is seated in a semi-circle with a half-dozen youngsters.
She begins to sing.
At first, she’s met with blank stares. Slowly the children pick up the rhythm of the song. By the end nearly everyone is singing along.
“I’ve taught little ones, but this is different,” Hotch said. “We have a family and I’m looking at adults and I’m looking at babies and in-between. And it’s wonderful because that’s actually where our language starts is with a family.”
Hotch is from Klukwan in Southeast. She grew up speaking Tlingit with her family.
“In the home, that was all that was spoken,” she said. “Leaving home, I was leaving one environment and stepping into a different environment. I can’t explain it, but it just felt different at that time.”
Hotch is one of the roughly 60 fluent Tlingit speakers left in Alaska. And she’s been teaching her language to others for two decades. She’s taught in classrooms, at community centers and at the university. But she says this is different.
“Here in the museum, we’ve created a little language environment and so when people come into my classroom, we try to do our best to create that environment as if they were out in the community,” Hotch said.
This type of learning environment is called a language nest. It’s less structured than a typical classroom. The kids are at home here. Babies nap in their mother’s laps while kids color eagles and moose at a round table in the corner.
Gina Randles is here with her daughter Grace. She’s just finished her shift as a bank teller and says it’s a nice way to unwind with her five-year-old. Even if the pronunciation can be tough.
“They’re sounds that aren’t in any other language, so it’s a little tricky to shape your mouth around that,” Randles said.
Linguists say Tlingit has two dozen sounds that don’t exist in English. That’s hard for adults but less so for kids who are still learning to communicate.
Tlingit was once the predominant language spoken here and across Southeast and parts of B.C. There are many efforts to revitalize it. But the Alaska Native Language Preservation Advisory Council warns that unless Native tongues are spoken daily they could be practically extinct by the end of the century.
Xunei Lance Twitchell serves on the advisory council. He’s been pushing the state to adopt Indigenous languages into the public school curriculum.
“What I would like to see is that there is a language teacher in every school and that there is an expectation that every child who is going to graduate takes one semester of an Alaska Native Language,” Twitchell said.
That’s an ambitious goal. But there are efforts afoot. A new Tlingit immersion preschool opened in Juneau earlier this year. And statewide Native language initiatives are starting to gain some ground.
Last year, then-governor Bill Walker declared a linguistic emergency. He issued an administrative order directing the Department of Education and Early Development to work with partners to promote Alaska Native languages in public schools and universities.
But the future of this initiative is in doubt following the gubernatorial election. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration froze all of his predecessor’s administrative orders.
The language preservation advisory council’s researcher Roy Mitchell says no one’s sure quite what that means.
“All the previous administrative orders are under review,” Mitchell said. “There is currently not an official directive as far as whether that still stands or not.”
But that hasn’t deterred advocates at the grassroots level. Hotch says she’s intent on helping nurture the next generation of Tlingit native speakers.
“Seeing the parents come in and the kids get to see their parents being enthusiastic about learning this new language that’s so new to them, it’s different,” Hotch said. “You know, but it’s a way to communicate. Even some of the kids, to them it’s just communication, they don’t recognize it as language.”