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The paradox of language revival in Southeast Alaska

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Title: The paradox of language revival in Southeast Alaska
Authors: Yarrow, Jordan Lachler
Belarde, Linda Vaara
Issue Date: 14 Mar 2009
Description: Over the past century, there has been a sharp decline in the number of fluent speakers of Tlingit and Haida, two of the indigenous languages of Southeast Alaska. Today, there are fewer than 200 fluent speakers of Tlingit, and only 5 fluent speakers of Haida left in Alaska. Despite of these grim numbers, or perhaps because of them, the past five years has seen a dramatic increase the number of people studying these languages. As the last generation of fluent elders begins to pass, more and more younger people in the communities are expressing a desire to learn their ancestral language. While this reawakening has been a long-hoped for dream among local language activists, it actually poses a serious challenge to the prospects for language revitalization. Across the region, very few of the fluent elders are young enough and healthy enough to teach anymore. At the same time, only a handful of long-time language students have progressed to a solid intermediate level where they are capable of teaching new beginning students. The increased demand among community members for beginning-level language classes has created a flood of new teaching opportunities in the local elementary schools, high schools, universities, after-school programs and culture camps, both in the Native villages and in the larger urban centers. In nearly all cases, these teaching positions are being filled by dedicated intermediate-level students, some of whom are teaching language to multiple age groups in multiple schools on a daily basis. As a direct result of the increased demand for language instruction, many of these intermediate students now find themselves spending more time teaching the language to beginners than working with the remaining fluent elders to improve their own abilities with the language. In some ways, the more they teach, the less they learn. As time to work with fluent elders runs out, some worry that they will miss their last opportunity to progress in their language learning and may never become conversationally proficient. These students/teachers then find themselves caught between the immediate needs of their communities, and the long-term survival of their Native language. In this paper, we will examine this paradoxical relationship between language teaching and language learning, and discuss the ways in which the problem is being addressed in various communities throughout southeast Alaska.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:1st International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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