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Bringing a First Nation language back from the brink

As a young teenager, K'eduka Jack considered herself a bit of an oddity for being so passionate about her traditional language.

As a young teenager, K’eduka Jack considered herself a bit of an oddity for being so passionate about her traditional language.

She and her sister would attend drop-in classes with elders to learn more about Tlingit, a critically endangered language with fewer than 50 fluent speakers in Carcross and Teslin, the Yukon communities where it is spoken.

But they were quickly put off by how slow and unchallenging the pace was.

Fluent Tlingit speakers are generally aged 65 and older, and no Yukon children are learning it as their first language, according to the Yukon Native Language Centre.

Disappointed, Jack kept searching for something more structured and intensive.

Last year, the 24-year-old member of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation had a chance encounter with Michele Johnson at Yukon College.

It proved to be the turning point she’d been waiting for.

“I’d been looking for my language my entire life,” Jack said.

“I’ve always been interested in my culture and heritage. But I didn’t want to be a part of something that was going to be a waste of time.”

Johnson, who has a PhD in language revitalization, had previously developed an intensive curriculum for her own native language, Nsyilxcn.

“She came up to me and asked me if I wanted to learn my language, so I said yes,” Jack said.

It wasn’t long before Jack quit her job at a daycare in Teslin and jumped on board with the project full-time.

The pair has since teamed up to create the Tlingit Language Revitalization Association. Their goal is simple: to create new Tlingit speakers.

“Meeting her was the biggest stroke of luck I’ve had in such a long time,” Jack said.

“I’ve never learned so much of my language in such a short amount of time. With her method I managed to learn 300-400 words in a few months, which is more than I’d learned in my entire life.”

Last year, Johnson developed a series of textbooks - called Tlingit 1 - that she taught to Jack and another Tlingit teacher, George Bahm.

For the next few months, they will recruit about a dozen young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 and teach them Tlingit 1.

They’ll even lobby the students’ workplaces for days off to attend the classes.

Jack said there’s a precedent for people taking time off to attend French classes, but none for First Nation classes.

Tlingit 1 will be taught between March and June, while materials for Tlingit 2 are in development and will eventually be taught in either July or August.

It’s anticipated that participants will learn approximately 1,500 words from both courses.

“There are a lot of myths about language revitalization,” Jack said, “including that you have to memorize sentences instead of learning individual words.”

“What I love the most about this is that I’m not a fluent speaker but I can teach this course. I can teach four people, who can teach four people, and it’s a tidal wave effect.”

Johnson said speakers of the Interior Salish languages, located in the Pacific Northwest, have used the method.

“I used the method to become an intermediate speaker, along with a small cohort of youth in the Okanagan,” she wrote in an e-mail.

“We moved into an immersion house for six months and studied the curriculum. In Tlingit, we need to do the added step of writing the curriculum first.

“I’m excited about the potential of applying these methods to Tlingit and feel very positive about our success because K’eduka is such a passionate learner and organizer.”

The six-month project is funded by a grant the team received last year from the Aboriginal Languages Initiative, a federal program funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage that supports language revitalization projects.

Jack said she hopes they can get funding beyond that by starting to develop Tlingit 3.

A final report, textbooks, CDs and other learning materials will be made available by the end of November, all of it free, Jack said.

Contact Myles Dolphin at