Native language classes offer learning to all

If elders are the encyclopedias of their native language and culture, then Linda Harvey and Anne Ranigler are like reference librarians, providing a…

If elders are the encyclopedias of their native language and culture, then Linda Harvey and Anne Ranigler are like reference librarians, providing a crucial link to that wealth of knowledge.

In addition to working as language specialists at the Yukon Native Language Centre, both women teach native language classes at Kwanlin Dun and at the Ta’an Kwach’an First Nation office in Whitehorse.

Harvey teaches Southern Tutchone together with her mother, fluent speaker Irene Smith, while Ranigler — who is fluent herself — teaches Northern Tutchone with the assistance of her mother, Emma Shorty.

The evening classes are offered in eight-week sessions in both fall and spring, and are open to anyone — First Nation or non-First Nation — who wishes to learn.

The two instructors use a variety of teaching methods and materials, including songs, games, stories and listening exercises, to make the classes lively and enjoyable.

“I play a lot of games with them, which the adults and elders enjoy too,” says Harvey. “When you’re playing games you’re saying the words over and over, and the more you say them the easier it becomes to speak the language and remember it.”

Both women are accredited instructors through the Yukon Native Language Centre’s training program, and are passionate about what they do.

“There’s a saying, Dayunji ech’i,” explains Ranigler. “It means that the language is us, it’s our soul, it’s everything to us.”

Harvey says that “it just lifts your spirits up to go and teach. It’s the enjoyment of being together with other people who want to learn the language, and having fun together and doing the language activities together.”

Harvey has almost 10 years of experience teaching her language in Whitehorse school programs, while Ranigler is a professional Northern Tutchone interpreter and translator who has also taught adult language classes at the Yukon College campus in Carmacks.

Teaching open language classes with students of all ages presents a particular challenge. Instructors must be able to be creative and adaptable.

“They’re mixed ages but mostly adults, so you have to find a way to keep everyone happy when you’re working with different levels and attention spans,” says Harvey.

“You can’t have any set program because they’re drop-in,” says Ranigler. “If people come in the middle of the class, you can’t just stop, so you have to be very flexible.”

They both know from experience that it’s challenging for adults to learn a second language whose sounds and grammar are so different from English.

Like her students, Harvey herself had to learn the language from scratch.

“I’m from the generation that didn’t get taught the language,” she says.

In many cases, parents who had been punished at residential schools for speaking their language didn’t use it with their children because they were trying to protect them.

Harvey remembers first getting excited about learning her language at an immersion weekend at Klukshu a number of years ago, when she followed her mother around with a notebook.

“I kept saying, ‘How do you say good morning? How do you say thank you?’” she laughs.

Since then she has attended many literacy courses at the Language Centre, received her instructor accreditation, and now team-teaches with her mother, whom she describes as her “encyclopedia.”

“I explain to my students that I learn through my mum, and that you’re learning through me. I make sure my students know I’m not fluent.”

As for Ranigler, although Northern Tutchone is her first language, she no longer spoke it well by her teens and had to work to regain her fluency.

“A lot of people understand the language, but they can’t speak it,” she says. “This is why we have to also teach the people who already know some of the language.”

Among the difficulties for English speakers are the tones — Yukon native languages use tone as one way of distinguishing meaning — and the new sounds.

One of those sounds is the distinctive “barred l,” which doesn’t exist in English.

“It’s almost like a “tl” sound, but you’re blowing air,” explains Harvey, as Ranigler adds, “You’re blowing air out of both sides of your mouth and your tongue goes against your teeth.”

“So when you say ‘fish,’ you say ‘Lu’ in Southern Tutchone, with the bar-L,” says Harvey.

“I use lots of listening exercises to get them used to hearing the sounds,” explains Ranigler.

Harvey uses handouts that students can put up in different places in their homes. “I give them signs to put in their bathroom that say, ‘Wash your hands. Wash your face.’ And a sign to put by their bed that says, ‘Go to bed.’ So they start seeing and using those small phrases all the time.”

Another challenge that Harvey and Ranigler face is the issue of dialects.

As in English, Yukon native languages have a number of different dialects, and that sometimes creates conflict.

Harvey, who speaks the Ta’an dialect of Southern Tutchone, trained in the classroom with instructors Margaret Workman and Bertha Moose, both of whom speak other dialects of the language.

She used that dialect herself when she was teaching Southern Tutchone in the school native language programs. Now, in teaching evening classes with her mother, they both use their native Ta’an dialect.

Harvey tells her students that “if you find it difficult to learn, don’t worry about it. You’ll learn the language, and afterwards, if you can get your elders to speak your dialect, you can learn that way of speaking it.”

As Ranigler notes, dialect differences don’t prevent students from learning a language.

“Northern Tutchone is Northern Tutchone. I encourage students to use their own dialect.”

At both Kwanlin Dun and Ta’an Kwach’an, language co-ordinators help to organize the classes so that Ranigler and Harvey can concentrate on teaching.

The two-hour classes always include a break, with snacks provided by the program.

Ranigler says that people often bring food to share.

“Someone brings in stew or bannock, or my mum fries a whole bunch of fish.”

Adds Harvey, “The elders feel comfortable doing that because it makes them feel like they’re contributing to the classroom food. And then we teach the students the words for the food.”

The shared food, laughter, and language seem to keep people coming back.

Harvey remembers one little girl who came to the class with her grandmother. “She was having such a good time that she said, ‘I don’t ever want to leave this place, grandma. I want to move here.’”

For more information on the language classes planned for fall and winter, please contact Ta’an Kwach’an and Kwanlin Dun First Nations.

Kwanlin Dun also offers language classes in Southern Tutchone and Tlingit.

Submitted by the Yukon Native Language Centre.