Juneau immersion classroom aims to teach new generation of Lingít speakers

Most fluent speakers of the Lingít language are elders. But the instructors of an immersion classroom in Juneau have high hopes: to raise a new generation of Lingít speakers.

When you step inside the Haa Yóo X̱ʼatángi Kúdi classroom, two rules are immediately clear: shoes off, and Lingít only. At least for the adults.

Haa Yóo X̱ʼatángi Kúdi means “our language’s nest,” or “our language nest.”

Daaljíni Mary Cruise is the lead instructor and administrator of the program. She didn’t grow up speaking Lingít — the language stopped in her family when her great-grandmother was sent to boarding school in Oregon — but when she started college at the University of Alaska Southeast, Cruise signed up for a class. Then another. And another. 

“And my adviser was telling me, ‘Well, you’re probably not going to get a teaching degree anytime soon. Because you keep taking all these language classes,’” Cruise said.

Cruise did eventually earn a master’s in education and took all the Lingít classes she could. But she said she still wouldn’t claim to be fully fluent.

“No matter how much I learn, I’m still just a child in the language,” she said.

The fact is, she said, it’s easier to learn a language when you’re young. Ideally, very young. Most of the students in her immersion classroom are 3- to 5-years-old. Cruise hopes by starting early, they can master Lingít.

The program is still getting off the ground. The money fell into place last summer, when the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska received a $1 million federal grant from the Administration for Native Americans, under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to start a language nest. 

Haa Yóo X̱ʼatángi Kúdi opened briefly this spring and again this September, now located inside Tlingit and Haida’s vocational training & resource center. Currently, 14 students are enrolled in the program, and there’s a waitlist. Class is Tuesday through Friday from 1 to 5 p.m., and the program will roughly follow the school year, with summers off.

Daaljíni Mary Cruise leads circle time in the Haa Yóo X̱ʼatángi Kúdi Lingít immersion classroom in Juneau on Oct. 9, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Along with Cruise there are two more instructors and a birth speaker language adviser, Kaakal.aat Florence Marks Sheakley.

“At home we hardly ever spoke any English,” Sheakley said. “One of the things that grandma told us was if you stop speaking your language, that means you’re ashamed of who you are.”

Sheakley helps the other instructors with pronunciation and word choice. She also translates a lot of the teaching materials, like children’s books and songs, a skill she first honed translating letters for her aunties.

Sheakley has taught Lingít for years, often to adults including Cruise, at UAS. She said it’s heartwarming to work with the youngest students.

“Oh, gosh, they’re just like little sponges,” Sheakley said. “They don’t have a hard time saying difficult sounds that maybe the adults have a hard time saying. The children, they just spit it right out.”

A major goal of the immersion classroom is to involve families. Parents and friends are invited to twice monthly family nights, so they can get to know each other and learn a little of what their kids are learning. The instructors hope the families will keep practicing Lingít at home.

That commitment is something that initially worried Madeline Soboleff Levy. She grew up in Juneau but lived away for many years before moving back with her family. When Haa Yóo X̱ʼatángi Kúdi started accepting applications, she and her husband discussed whether to enroll their 3-year-old in the language nest.

“I kind of walked through all kinds of pros and cons with him, and he looked at me, and my husband said, ‘Why are we living here if we’re not going to put him in this program?’ And I thought, well, I think you’re right. Why did we move home? If not to do this?” said Soboleff Levy.

Her son has only been at the Lingít immersion classroom for a few weeks, but she said he’s already picking it up.

“If I talk to him about the day, he doesn’t always have a lot of Lingít to speak to me, but then we’ll be walking around the house and he’ll start singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ in Lingít, or he’ll start counting things 1-2-3, or telling people he’s nás’k, he’s 3 years old,” she said.

Another parent, Joy Demmert, hopes the language nest is just the beginning of her son’s Lingít education.

“I’m looking forward to it progressing and blossoming and just being a footstep for him to be able to take classes all through high school and being able to graduate and become a fluent speaker,” Demmert said.

Kaakal.aat Florence Marks Sheakley displays a children’s book she translated into Lingít, pictured in the Haa Yóo X̱ʼatángi Kúdi immersion classroom in Juneau on Oct. 9, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

At this point, many of those next steps don’t exist. The future of the Lingít language is far from secure. X’unei Lance Twitchell is an associate professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS and a part-time instructor in the immersion classroom. He estimates the number of Lingít speakers anywhere with a high level mastery of the language is only about 10.

Twitchell sees revitalizing Lingít as a long road. But Haa Yóo X̱ʼatángi Kúdi, the language nest, gives him hope.

“When you try to build these language nests, you feel like you’re doing the wrong thing, because you’re not ready, you’re not prepared, you need more teachers, you need more materials,” Twitchell said. “But when people see those babies start talking, it starts to shift things in ways that other things might not.”