For elder Mabel English, it’s a beautiful sound when her grandchildren rush inside asking for water in Gwich’in.
However, it’s also rare: there are roughly 375 Gwich’in speakers in all of Canada, according to the 2011 census. Many of them are concentrated around the Beaufort Delta and, according to the Gwich’in Tribal Council’s Department of Cultural Heritage, it is one of the most endangered Indigenous languages in Canada.
On top of that, the department says many of its speakers are over 40.
In the coming weeks, English will spearhead a project that focuses on a new generation. So far, six families have signed up to participate in a Gwich’in language program at
the Children First Society. The project will dedicate a room to immerse the children in the language, where English will engage with preschool aged children as they develop their Gwich’in skills.
Andrew Cienski, a language revitalization specialist with Gwich’in Tribal Council, calls it – and its sister project in Tsiigehtchic – a “brave new frontier, bringing back a very ancient and very profound thing.”
He said young children are the best suited to learning language. They learn the fastest
and their pronunciation is stronger. Catching this key age “is the best way to make the most amount of progress in the shortest amount of time,” he said.
According to the research he has studied, within a year, the youth should understand the
language and start to speak. However, the program will likely amount to half a year, or potentially slightly longer if organizers are lucky.
Children First Society executive director Patricia Davison, said the biggest challenge for the program is funding. As a pilot project, the program has a short period to prove its success.
She’s optimistic nonetheless.
Davison believes it will see results and shared plans for family-oriented evening and weekend sessions, or language apps, to help support these burgeoning young
She’s also supportive of the teaching concepts that deviate from traditional word association exercises. Davison said “the worst way” to learn a language was
pointing to pictures and naming their subjects. There’s no context. Children learn first
by understanding; speaking comes later.
Davison is excited that by next spring she could hear the children play in the Gwich’in tongue. Her guess is immersion in Gwich’in with the English will allow the language to emerge in their play. “And that’s when you know that they’ve truly learned it – they use it in their ever day lives,” she said.
That play part is vital. For one, traditional materials aren’t necessary for preschool aged children, Cienski said.
“We didn’t learn English out of textbooks,” he said. “So you don’t need materials. You just
need time and people to speak to them in the language and play with them in the language.”
Case in point, Mabel English’s grandchildren are naturals. “They just grab it,” she said.
It’s not always so easy when learners are older. When she teaches adults, English finds they often stay for a week before quitting in frustration. “It’s hard,” she
“I’m teaching them how to speak the language and (they say), ‘what was that? What was that?’ I get so tired.”
Her plan for the children in the pilot project is less exhausting. It’s also deceptively simple: engage with them as they play and socialize and allow them to organically absorb the language and take it home.
For Cienski, the ultimate success of the program relies on families taking playing a role, bringing it back into homes and communities.
“Really, the goal is to get families involved and community involved,” he said. “It’s not
something that can happen in the classroom outside of that. Language is something that if it’s going to be living, it’s going to be in peoples’ homes.”