Krista Dempster, language curriculum developer at Yukon Native Language Centre, shows off the new online digital language resource available free at ynlc.ca on July 26. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Speak up: digitized Indigenous language lessons spark hope for revival

‘We need teachers and we need access to resources’

For more than three decades the Yukon Native Learning Centre (YNLC) has been gathering lessons and stories meant to be teaching tools for those wanting to learn Yukon’s Indigenous languages.

The collection runs to more than 10,000 pages, but until recently the only way for language teachers to find information to use in class was to search the lessons manually.

“It was a big challenge to search through everything, if you were looking for one word or one topic … (you’d) have to look through all of the print resources that were available for that language which could be thousands of pages,” said Krista Dempster, who works at the centre as a language curriculum developer.

The resources were only available in Whitehorse or could be ordered and paid for by teachers in the communities.

Now those thousands of pages are available online for free. Each of the eight recognized Indigenous languages of the Yukon — Gwich’in, Han, Upper Tanana, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Kaska, Tagish and Tlingit — have their own section online and every document is searchable if teachers want to look up a specific phrase or topic.

In January of this year the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) took over control of the centre from the Government of Yukon.

The territorial government trained some new teachers but the main focus was “mostly preservation and documentation,” Dempster said.

When CYFN took over that mandate changed.

“Now the new mandate is focused on creating new speakers, creating new generations of speakers that can teach their children the language in the home,” Dempster said. “And in order for that to happen we need teachers and we need access to resources.”

To digitize the collection, YNLC worked with the Yukon Department of Education’s First Nations programs and partnerships (FNPP) unit and Carleton University.

“Making Yukon First Nations language resources readily available will significantly increase the potential for language revitalization. It is a major step toward the collective goal of increasing the number of First Nations language speakers in the Yukon,” CYFN Grand Chief Peter Johnson said in a statement.

Next, Dempster said, the centre will be digitizing the audio it has that goes along with the written lessons.

“Those CDs are now being put into a program so we can export them as media files so that they can be put online and be searchable,” she said.

“That will make a huge difference…. Somebody can print the language lesson booklet but if you don’t know how to say it, or what the words sound like, it’s really difficult”

Plans are also in the works to create full curriculums to teach the eight different languages.

“Whether it be for the K-12 program or community language programs or adult immersion programs, there’s never been a curriculum,” Dempster said.

Instead individual teachers were left to come up with their own methods of teaching, she said.

The new curriculums will have lessons for people from beginners to those closer to fluency. What’s currently available doesn’t offer much beyond a beginner’s level, she said.

“That’s the focus of YNLC right now, is to get that curriculum out there so that we can begin creating new resources that match up with each proficiency level.”

The resources the centre has have been online for a few weeks. Dempster said she’s already hearing positive feedback, especially from teachers.

“They know how difficult it has been to try and come up with or find content to use,” she said.

She said staff at the centre have been working on getting the news out that the resources are available. Hard copies of all of the material is laid out at the centre located at Yukon College.

“It was part of that goal of getting things out there and letting people have this material at their finger tips because it was never available before,” Dempster said.

People can find the online versions of the documents on YNLC’s website, ynlc.ca, by clicking “languages” in the menu.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

Indigenous languagesYukon Native Language Centre

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Southern Tutchone language lesson books lay open among other language lesson books at the Yukon Native Language Centre. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

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