Yukon First Nations learn new language teaching approach

Bessie Cooley, a Tlingit language instructor in Teslin, plans on retiring in a few years. The number of fluent speakers of Yukon's First Nations languages is dwindling, but some hope an early childhood immersion program may change that. ((Leonard Linklater/CBC))

Aboriginal language teachers in the Yukon will soon have a new tool to teach kids First Nation languages.

The Council of Yukon First Nations held workshops in Whitehorse this week, explaining the Language Nest program. The program has been successful in reviving languages in places like New Zealand and Australia, along with other parts of Canada.

In the program, fluent speakers become involved in early childhood education, creating immersion-style learning for children ages one to four.

Sean Smith of the Yukon First Nations Self-Government Secretariat said they hope to identify master speakers and potential apprentices who will eventually work with children from preschool and through their school years.

"Ten years, 15 years down the road, 20 years down the road, I see these graduates from these language nests as the teachers of the future of our language and our culture," he said.

There are eight First Nation languages in Yukon. But elders, who make up the majority of fluent aboriginal language speakers, are dying and taking those languages with them.

Geraldine James, director of education for the Carcross Tagish First Nation, said they’re in “crisis mode.”

“All of our Tagish speakers are gone now, so that's one language that's already extinct,” she said. “So now we look at the Tlingit side and we were counting probably four that are fluent."

James said for too long they've been following Yukon Government mandated curriculum that's not effective.

Bessie Cooley, who grew up speaking Tlingit, has been a language instructor in Teslin for decades at the local school. She teaches in blocks of 20 minutes to an hour.

“How do I take that lifetime of learning and fit it in there?” she asked.

Cooley, 68, said she only plans to teach for another two or three years before she retires.

There is hope that the Language Nest program will help aboriginal languages survive.

Erin Pauls, manager of Kwanlin Dun's Duska daycare, said they have to make the early immersion program work because the future depends on it.

“I think giving these kids the gift in being able to speak their language and learn their culture will give them their identity and make them proud of who they are as First Nations people," she said.

James is also hopeful the new Language Nest approach will work.

“I'm looking at it very optimistically right now,” she said. “And we'll do everything that we can, even if it doesn't look like a full immersion at first, because we're learning, too.”