Guna Jensen says she’s been thinking about the importance of language almost all her life — but she also had a strange trepidation about learning her own Indigenous language, Tlingit.
“I’ve always been terrified. Which is kind of weird to think that we’d be terrified to like, reclaim and relearn our language — something that’s ours,” she said.
She overcame that fear though, and this month she graduated from an intensive, three-week beginner course offered in Whitehorse. Now she’s planning to continue on to more advanced lessons.
Jensen says it’s about recognizing how language is “at the heart of everything that we are.”
“It really all, in the end comes down to language and land. I started hearing more language speakers and language learners talk about how it reverses trauma and it heals us,” she said.
“It’s essential in so many different ways, but I think maybe one of the most special things about it is that it will change our minds, it will change our brains.”
Keduka Jack is a Tlingit instructor who helped design the course. She says there are not many fluent Tlingit speakers left.
“In Atlin [B.C.], for the Taku River Tlingit, our Tlingit dialect is actually what would be defined as a ‘sleeping’ language or in other words, extinct,” she said.
“And so we don’t have any speakers left who were born into the language and are at master speaking ability or even intermediate speaking ability.”
That’s made it a challenge to develop learning materials and a curriculum for beginners, she said. Jack was not fluent herself, so she has been effectively learning through teaching. She’s been at it for about five years now.
The course textbook was written with help from some local elders. The beginner course involves learning 500 words of Tlingit vocabulary and about 200 to 250 sentences.
The material is divided into 45 separate lessons, and the intensive course offered this summer saw students working through three lessons a day over three weeks, all in an outdoor setting. Typically, the lessons are spread out over several weeks.
“We’ve never taught in an intensive format like this before,” Jack said. “For people to be willing to commit for three weeks was pretty impressive.”
Six students enrolled in the intensive course — five of them new to the language, and one who had already taken some beginner lessons.
Jack said the course is not designed to be like some other language courses, where students might study intricacies of grammar and proper usage. It’s meant to help people start speaking some Tlingit as soon as possible, she said.
“Really, the best part about this methodology is that even a beginner speaker who doesn’t know any language at all can be teaching within a week’s time even — so it’s pretty incredible.”
Jack and others have so far developed two textbooks, and are working on a third. The goal is to eventually have six to guide students through more advanced lessons. They’re also working on developing a language “nest” curriculum, for children under the age of five.
“Hopefully, you know, 20 years from now, we’ll have all the way up to an immersion school, with high school grades, all in our language. We’ll see,” she said.