Plan for Yukon First Nations language education hopes to spark striving for fluency

In a new framework and action plan for the teaching of First Nations languages in Yukon schools, the importance of intertwining language with traditional activities is highlighted. Fittingly the report is decorated with photos like this one taken at Helen’s Fish Camp on the traditional territory of the Ta’an Kwach’an Council in 2020. (Alistair Maitland Photography/First Nation Education Directorate)

In a new framework and action plan for the teaching of First Nations languages in Yukon schools, the importance of intertwining language with traditional activities is highlighted. Fittingly the report is decorated with photos like this one taken at Helen’s Fish Camp on the traditional territory of the Ta’an Kwach’an Council in 2020. (Alistair Maitland Photography/First Nation Education Directorate)

It’s about keeping an eye on the opportunities, not just the challenges for those hoping to inspire learners of Yukon First Nations languages.

The revival of the languages was a key objective associated with the creation of the Yukon First Nation School Board in 2021. Language learning is now guided by a recently-released framework and action plan entitled We Are Our Language. The plan, which drew on history, experiences and advice from Yukon First Nations will be applied to Kindergarten to Grade 12 education at the 11 schools represented by the First Nation School Board.

“The First Nation School Board is very excited to endorse the We Are Our Language, Yukon First Nations K to 12 language framework and action plan,” said school board director Emily Pauls.

“We really, really value that all 14 First Nations worked tirelessly on this, and came together to create this.”

The plan deals with supporting young learners of the Yukon’s eight Indigenous languages: Gwich’in, Hän, Kaska, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Tagish, Tlingit and Upper Tanana.

The planning identifies goals and the short, medium and long term steps that will be taken towards them.

The key goals for language learning at the schools are: The creation of inspired language learners, First Nations students who graduate with increasing fluency levels and pride in their ancestral languages as well as increasing the strength of First Nations language personnel, therefore ensuring that qualified, fluent, First Nations language speakers are available to fill the roles needed to support language learning in the future.

The school board is in the midst of hiring two language coaches to support the language teachers as well as two land and language connectors.

Pauls said the language coaches’ role will be supporting the schools’ language teachers by offering professional development, helping form the curriculum and seeking funding to create resources. In a challenging situation for First Nations Language teachers so far, they have had to come up with curriculum themselves while teachers of other subjects have a wealth of textbooks and other resources.

One of the short-term goals in the action plan is an inventory of the strengths, needs and priorities when it comes to language learning for each of the Yukon First Nations. That should be commencing in the next month and Pauls said the newly-hired language coaches will be major players in this as will the community committees stepping into the roles of the school councils for the First Nation School Board schools.

Also being hired are seven land and language connectors, one for each community that has a First Nation School Board school. Among the connectors’ roles will be supporting language camps and other on-the-land learning opportunities.

Melanie Bennett, the executive director of the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate that helped with the creation of the First Nation School Board and the recent action plan, expressed the importance of developing the seed of interest in the Indigenous languages for learners in schools. She said more efforts in this regard are needed as the school system hasn’t done enough in the past. In approaching the teaching of the languages, Bennett emphasized the importance of focusing on what is positive rather than on deficits or challenges in order to inspire learners.

“We have a long, long way to go, but you find your resources to go out and learn and ask questions. And I think that’s what this action plan and framework does for our students in schools,” she said.

The action plan quantifies just how threatened the Yukon First Nations languages are. All eight of the Yukon First Nations languages are identified as in a critical state and in need of immediate support. The number of fluent speakers range from just shy of 300 for some languages to only a handful for others.

“Our languages are near extinct extinction. In many of our communities, we have, you know, one to 10 speakers and so this is really a critical time in our languages. Our languages are our window to our worldview, so the way we talk about the land, the way we talk about our culture and our protocols is a different way of thinking,” Pauls said.

Pauls, Bennett and the text of the action plan all identify forming a connection between language and on-the-land activities, art and other cultural pillars.

Bennett says art can be important for passing language and culture using the example of her own traditional beadwork.

“I hear my grandmother’s stories in it, I can remember her, telling me how to fix things. And sometimes she used her language, and sometimes she used English. It’s about that transition and passing it down in that way,” she said.

Pauls also wants to see arts and cultural activities like drumming, dancing, carving, painting, beading and weaving done in collaboration with language learning.

Drawing from her own experience building more proficiency in Hän, Bennett expressed the importance of technology in language education. Even in cases where there are few fluent speakers remaining, she said learners can be given access to hours of recordings. Pauls drew attention to apps that some Yukon First Nations already have to support their languages and said that such tools are a great way for learners to keep practising at home and with their friends.

Along with school and classroom-level plans and polices, the action plan recommends consulting with First Nations language partners to advocate for new legislation designating the eight Yukon First Nations languages as official languages and seeking a review of the Yukon’s Education Act. Bennett said First Nations language education is not funded equitably in the Yukon school system and hopes for pressure to change that.

Ultimately, Bennett wants to see the language education in schools to set learners on a quest for fluency that can be furthered through education after Grade 12, used outside the classroom. She wants to see students view their ancestral language as their first language.

Contact Jim Elliot at [email protected]

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