Dena’ina language learning through audio-video lessons: a potential model for other endangered languages

Date
2013-03-02
Authors
Mitchell IV, D. Roy
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Dena’ina Qenaga is an Alaskan Athabascan language with only a few dozen fluent speakers, all above the age of 65. As with other endangered languages, many challenges exist which make it difficult for learners to acquire proficiency in Dena’ina Qenaga. Most younger Dena’ina live where there are no fluent speakers. At any given time, the language is not likely to be taught in local schools or universities in traditional Dena’ina country. With funding from portions of two federal grants, we held a series of three-day Dena’ina language institutes in Kenai and in Anchorage. Fluent elders, serious students of the language, two linguists and a linguist anthropologist met over a two year period. In group discussions, it soon became apparent that learners wanted not just a few days of instruction, but tools for learning that they could utilize at any time and in any place. Integrating logical, possible conversations with explorations of basic forms of verb conjugations was my narrow pedagogical goal. Our broader hope has been that the conversation and context are so compelling that learners aren’t even aware that we’re covering the key portions of a verb paradigm. Central to this are skits of the talk between a parent or grandparent and a child, giving directions for getting up and performing morning activities and for getting ready for bed in the evening. Additional videos include conversations about weather and about kinship. Fluent elders take the role of language resource experts and key speakers in the instructional videos. Advanced students (late teens to forties) help in creating the scenarios and enact some of the roles in the instructional videos. We subsequently partnered with the Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage. There, we examined 19th century Dena’ina objects and the elders told us (in English and in Dena’ina) their recollections on similar objects. Then we created simple conversations, granddaughters asking grandmothers about the objects and listening to their replies. These interviews and monologues subsequently were edited at the Arctic Studies Center, creating electronic documents which convey traditional knowledge while simultaneously providing contextualized language lessons. Very important is the ability for Dena’ina learners living anywhere to have the ability to study and learn. We hope to create more language videos as funding becomes available. Furthermore, we hope that this approach may inspire other indigenous language communities to consider experimenting with this approach to the creation of language learning opportunities.
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