By Tyrone Burke
Photos by Chris Roussakis
A language is more than a series of sounds given structure through grammar and meaning through symbolism. There are more than 7,000 languages on Earth, and each one can convey that which is common to every culture. We have more than 7,000 ways to communicate love, anger, darkness and light.
Each language is also a unique way of understanding the world and a method of conveying a particular way of life, of communicating what its speakers do differently from others, recognizing unique weather patterns, or telling distinctive oral histories.
A century from now, much of that diversity will be gone. More than 2,500 languages are threatened worldwide — eight of them are in Canada’s Yukon Territory.
Christopher Cox is working with the Yukon Native Language Centre to revitalize those languages and restore the intergenerational cycle of language learning in Yukon First Nations.
The assistant professor of Applied Linguistics and Discourse Studies is working with the centre to digitize its language resources for teaching Gwich’in, Hän, Kaska, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Tagish, Tlingit and Upper Tanana. The new digital tools will help communities and schools support language learners by overcoming some of the logistical hurdles of northern life.
The Yukon centre’s language resource materials are kept at Yukon College in Whitehorse. Indigenous language learners often live in distant rural communities.
“One of the challenges teachers had was accessing language resource materials,” says Cox, who worked with the First Nations Programs and Partnerships Unit at Yukon Education before coming to Carleton two years ago.
“Teachers had to come to the site at Yukon College and search its collections to obtain teaching materials. It often meant that teachers were going through 20 or 30 years worth of printed booklets. Sitting down and trying to remember what year it was that Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day had been discussed in a meeting. That was a huge challenge for them. It was a challenge for me too, trying to find the material. Over time, we started to digitize existing materials at Yukon Education, and I was fortunate to be able to continue that when I came to Carleton, in partnership with the Yukon Native Language Centre.”
Revitalizing and Reclaiming Yukon Languages
The centre’s language materials will be digitized and searchable online using their English translations. The software has even been trained to recognize special characters that don’t exist in the Roman alphabet.
“If you go to the languages bar on the YNLC.ca website and click on any language, you can see a live preview of the complete collection of scanned documents for that language,” says Cox, who is working with the centre to develop a similar archive of digital audio resources where language learners can consult how words or phrases are pronounced.
“For some languages, there are literally thousands of pages of material. Now you can click a box and find whatever word or phrase you’re looking for.”
According to Tina Jules, director of the Yukon Native Language Centre, the new resources and search tool will help support a new generation of language learners as they strive for greater fluency.
“All of our languages are in a critical state and need immediate support,” says Julies, noting that all Yukon First Nations are engaged in language program building, with some even offering intensive immersion programs.
“We have one language that is ‘dormant.’ It’s in a process of reclamation, meaning that there aren’t any birth speakers who fully speak the language. But the positive part is that there are members of that ethnic group advocating, engaging and trying to learn the language. So it’s not extinct, it’s being reclaimed. The rest of our languages are in the revitalization stage, where there has been a severe shift to using English.
Throughout Canada’s North, Indigenous languages are under threat, but the Yukon’s long history of contact with European languages makes the situation there especially acute.
“The story in the other territories is just . . . different,” Cox says. “What contact looks like, how colonization unfolded.”
In the Yukon, there were several waves of non-indigenous newcomers. Missionaries who arrived in the 19th century and the Klondike Gold Rush were major disruptions for many First Nations and, in the 1940s, the Alaska Highway linked northern B.C. with Alaska via the Yukon. That brought more settlers, who brought English language radio and television with them.
“That was a major turning point for many First Nations. It increased the amount of contact. Combined with the policy that forced children to attend residential schools, it had a huge impact on local languages.”
Supporting a New Generation of Yukon Language Learners
Through its parent organization, the Council of Yukon First Nations, the Yukon Native Language Centre has the mandate to support all Yukon First Nations to reclaim and restore Indigenous languages. As Jules sees it, the work Cox and his team are doing to create teaching resources that can be used throughout the territory is an important part of achieving their goals.
“The overall vision is that one day our babies will be born into their language,” she says, “and the intergenerational process of learning, teaching and becoming fluent is in place again. The cycle is restored in our homes and in our communities. That’s what we’re striving for, and why an initiative like this is so important.
“If we’re going to recover our languages, our babies must be learning their language, as their first language, their mother tongue. Their parents are teaching using their language as the main language. It’s these kinds of resources that we need to be able offer in language proficiency programs to help support a generation of parents who will raise their babies in their language once again.”
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