A UAS project aims to preserve and revitalize Alaska Native languages

University of Alaska Southeast. (08/05/2020)
University of Alaska Southeast. (08/05/2020)(KTUU)
Published: Aug. 26, 2020 at 1:54 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It’s an all too familiar tale, Indigenous languages on the verge of going extinct. Lost to time with the move to English being a predominant language in many households and the lack of native language speakers. But a project at the University of Alaska Southeast is looking to change the narrative.

It’s called the “Haa Yoo X’atángi Deiyí: Our Language Pathway” project, a three-year grant focused on language immersion in collaboration with Sealaska Heritage Institute. The project is centered on giving Alaska Native students who want to learn their heritage language the opportunity to do so for the purpose of teaching it to others.

Leading the project is Éedaa Heather Burge, who was hired in July 2020 as project coordinator.

“This is one of a number of programs and projects that have happened in the last 20, 30 or 40 years that have tried to create Tlingit language learned and speakers who will push back on the language loss that we are seeing in Alaska and globally of our indigenous languages,” said Burge. “The project is a response to that by supporting interested language learners to eventually become language teachers of their heritage language.”

Burge graduated from UAS in 2015 with a Bachelor of Liberal Arts in Alaska Native Languages and Studies. She earned a Master of Arts in Linguistics from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, focused on researching the way Lingít expresses the future. She is currently working on a Ph.D. in linguistic anthropology also through UBC, with an emphasis on language revitalization and best collaborative practices between language communities and academic communities.

According to a March 11, 2020 press release, “Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) and the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) have signed a new memorandum of agreement to further the education of Native language scholars in an effort to revitalize and perpetuate Tlingit (Lingít), Haida (Xaad Kíl) and Tsimshian (Sm’algyax).”

Through the project, 18 scholars are chosen and they receive a full scholarship to UAS that includes tuition, room, board, and other expenses plus part-time employment that provides additional language opportunities.

“We’ve made a lot of progress since we began focusing on language revitalization,” said SHI President Rosita Worl in the March press release, noting the numerous language instructors now teaching in public schools across the region. “However, we must provide these immersive habitats to ensure that we grow the number of teachers and perpetuate our languages, which are the foundation of our culture.”

According to the United Nations permanent forum of Indigenous issues, “At present, 96 percent of the world’s approximately 6,700 languages are spoken by only 3 percent of the world’s population. Although indigenous peoples make up less than 6% of the global population, they speak more than 4,000 of the world’s languages.”

The “Haa Yoo X’atángi Deiyí: Our Language Pathway” project is expected to wrap up Fall 2022. The program is largely supported through nearly $1.9 million in funding over three years secured by SHI. Participants may earn a Type M Certificate through the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development or work toward a bachelor’s degree. A certificate program is currently in the structuring phases and will be available soon to those interested.

Below are other resources and programs you can take or look into if you’d like to learn more about Alaska Native languages.

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