“My goal in my life is, by the time I turn 50 – I’m 43 now so I’ve got eight years – I’m going to stop speaking English,” says Connie Jules.
It’s an ambitious objective for the Teslin-Tlingit language teacher, who only began studying her native language six years ago.
But Jules is nothing if not determined. She’s been documenting her language since 2006, filling notebooks and making recordings of fluent speakers like elder Bessie Cooley, who has been Jules’ mentor. “I like using the iPod, so I use a lot of technological resources to document the language and cultural activities.”
That was the year Jules took her first formal language course, offered jointly by the Yukon Native Language Centre and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “That’s when I really started taking it seriously,” she says. “It was a structured course where we had to repeat and repeat and repeat.”
Jules had previously attended drop-in language classes for the employees of Teslin Tlingit Council, taught by Cooley. “I was going an hour a week and it would take me a month to learn one phrase, maybe longer, because I wasn’t doing it and doing it and doing it.”
She subsequently completed her three-year First Nation Language Proficiency certificate, a joint program in language learning offered by the Department of Education’s First Nations Programs and Partnerships branch and Simon Fraser University.
Now she’s in her final year of the Yukon Native Language Centre’s three-year certificate program, designed to prepare participants to become professional classroom teachers of their native languages.
Cooley, who is sitting beside Jules at a table in the centre, says, “You were interested in the language and you carried on. Once you started, it seemed you couldn’t quit.”
Even when she’s playing one of the language learning games developed by the centre as part of her teacher training, Jules is still busy documenting her Tlingit language.
“Today, when we played the trappers’ game, there were 35 different instructions or commands or greetings around the table that I heard. So I was writing as fast as I could, writing and asking questions as I was playing.”
Hired as a full-time language and culture teacher at Teslin School in September 2011, Jules spent the previous year as a trainee being mentored by Cooley, who is an experienced classroom teacher as well as a fluent speaker, and Cooley’s colleague Margaret Bob.
“The fortunate thing for us is that an elder like Bessie is fluent in every way – in writing, in reading, in speaking, in the culture.”
Jules calls her mentor by her Tlingit name – Keyishi – and uses her own Tlingit name, Khagane, exclusively at the school.
“Some of the new teachers don’t even know my English name. They see me at the playground in the evening with my son and it’s like ‘Hi, Khagane!’“
Jules’s students range from kindergartners to Grade 9. Cooley joins her in the classroom two and a half days a week.
What does Jules do if she has a question when she’s teaching on her own? “I call Bessie,” she says, laughing. “She’s always made it accessible for me to call when I need help.”
But she also relies on her notebooks and recordings and on the help of other elders. “We’re fortunate to have elder Sam Johnson. He comes in to the school and he and Bessie have discussions in the language and talk about different requests from me. If I ask Bessie a question, she always consults with other elders.”
Jules didn’t start out with an interest in her language. In fact she took French instead of Tlingit in high school because most other students did. “I took French and I failed every class.”
Later she completed a diploma in civil engineering technology in Lethbridge and worked as the director of capital and infrastructure for the Teslin Tlingit Council for five years.
Of her decision to pursue language training, Jules says, “Being Tlingit is the most important part of my life. My role as a mother, as an auntie, as a woman within our tribe means that I have responsibilities, and I’m just fulfilling my responsibilities as a member of the Dakhlawedi (Eagle) clan. It’s my role as a woman to learn the language and to pass it on.
“It’s about the importance of sustaining what we have and never ever putting it in a position where we’re at risk of losing our language, of losing who we are.”
Another important factor was the encouragement of Tlingit elders like Cooley and Sam Johnson. “Both of them always said that we’re really happy with what you’re doing. It’s really important that somebody’s out there right now, it really makes us feel good, and when they say that you’re obligated.”
At the last parent orientation session, Jules was burning CDs of Bessie Cooley speaking Tlingit for parents to take home. “I think it’s important that people who are learning hear a fluent speaker, that they don’t hear a learner like me.
“One day. I’ll be the fluent speaker and they’ll hear me, but right now people need to hear the fluent speaker talk. So when I do my recordings they’re with the fluent speakers and I always get permission to share them.”
Jules also finds ways to include the older students in language and culture learning, since formal classes aren’t offered past Grade 9. “In early September we got 100 pounds of Taku salmon from Atlin, set up tables down on the beach, and the kids cut the backbones out of all this fish. The homeroom teachers rotated their classes throughout the day.
“The 15, 16 year old boys won’t be interested if I’m going to do a language drill, it just doesn’t happen. But if I let them know we’re going to cut the backbones out of fish and I need you, you, and you to train these little guys, they’re there. And then we can use the language around them. That’s my approach.”
This article was prepared by the Yukon Native Language Centre.