Keeping language alive
Youth are the key

Glen Korstrom
Northern News Services

INUVIK (Feb 19/99) - Though many voice concerns about the future of the Gwich'in language, a revival may be around the corner if kids have their way.

Recent free Ingamo Hall Gwich'in language classes aimed at the general public earned sparse attendance and with each elder who passes on, the estimated few dozen people who can fluently speak the language slowly dwindles further.

But some area youth are not only learning the language in school but practise it on their own time.

"I go to the hospital sometimes to see my grandma. I talk a little bit of Gwich'in to her," says 10-year-old Lucy Thrasher about her visits to 97-year-old Lucy Vaneltsi in Inuvik Regional Hospital's long-term care unit.

The last time she went was about one week ago, she said in an interview on Feb. 13.

"I can say good morning, good afternoon, good evening," she says.

"Vanh Gwiinzii, Drin Gwiinzii, Khahtsat Gwiinzii."

Others say they only speak the language in school, though they try to have simple conversations with elders whenever possible.

But despite these kids' noble intentions, the road to fluency is likely a rocky one.

Consultant Chris Douglas is working on an overall plan to help revive Gwich'in and Inuvialuktun. He says if he were to make a concerted effort to learn the language he would head to Fort McPherson where it is in a bit better shape.

"There are certainly steps that can be taken to reverse the decline of the language but it has declined to such a point that it's very difficult even for people who are interested in learning the language to actually do so," Douglas says.

"Going to a class for a couple hours a week is a good way to start learning the language, but without opportunities to actually use it, then it's pretty hard."

Gwich'in elder Catherine Mitchell voiced a similar sentiment about how hard it is for youths to learn Gwich'in when she spoke during a discussion on language at the Gwich'in mini-assembly at the Alex Moses-Greenland building Feb. 10.

Discussion at that meeting branched into developing software or other speaking tools for children but parallel to those suggestions were comments on how much it would cost.

Meanwhile, Gwich'in language teachers at both Samuel Hearne and SAM schools have only optimism.

"Aanaii," which means, "come here," is something Gwich'in teacher Annie Charlie says she finds easier to express in Gwich'in. "It is also a phrase to use if someone is not paying attention, 'John, Aanaii,'" she says.

SAM school Gwich'in teacher Bella Kay says elders have visited her classes before and are always welcome -- even those days when she has not cooked food in advance.

Kay says visits from elders who speak the language help the children realize that there are people who can understand what they are learning.

They will then be able to pass down that connection to the next generation and so each generation can become slightly more fluent.