Learning Tlingit

Ax̲ x̲ʼagáaxʼi áwé yéi kg̲watée:
chʼu tleix̲
— K̲aalk̲áawu

My prayer will be this:
let it exist,
— Cyril George, K̲akʼweidí

There is no single right way to learn a language, and there is also no easy way. Regardless of the collection of resources, techniques, methods, technologies, and philosophies, the main ingredients to success are humility, patience, time, and labor. This text introduces a set of concepts that can lead to a high level of understanding of Tlingit language and culture. In an ideal situation, the student would have access to speakers and would take what the speakers are willing to teach instead of trying to fit this or any other curriculum onto the consciousness of our elders.

There are no specific lessons presented in this text, but instead there are lists of grammatical items with explanations and examples of how they function in the language. It is recommended that techniques of language acquisition and use accompany this text, and that the information presented here be used in existing or developing lessons to help convey some of the concepts and word lists.

This text assumes you have studied some Tlingit, especially the concepts presented in Beginning Tlingit by Richard and Nora Dauenhauer. If you have not, then you should examine that text and the accompanying audio. In addition, you should study the phrase book Lingít X̲ʼéináx̲ Sá: Say It In Tlingit, also by the Dauenhauers, and the audio version, Lingít X̲ʼéináx̲ Áx̲: Hear It In Tlingit, by Johnny Marks and Keri Eggleston (Edwards). The texts that you should always have with you in print or digital form are the Tlingit Verb Dictionary by Gillian Story and Constance Naish and Dictionary of Tlingit by Keri Edwards (Eggleston). Each of these are invaluable to learning Tlingit, and you should work with them enough to become very familiar with their structure so you can look things up easily and fairly fast.

Second Language Learning

The second-language student of Tlingit must balance energy and time between listening, speaking, and studying. Your time with other students is invaluable because you share a bond that no one else in the world shares, and your time with fluent elders is even more valuable than that. One of the hardest parts of learning an endangered language is comitting to staying in the language, which means those who have not made the choice with you are left out of the loop at times. It is not rude to stay in the language. It is choosing to allow the language to live.

When you have speakers and learners of the language together, then you must push yourself to make Tlingit the language of choice. To allow the group to stay in the language does two dangerous things: 1) it wastes time—which is even more deadly when precious elders are present, and 2) it makes English the more important language. Tlingit must be the language of choice for learners and speakers if language shift is going to reverse, and that is a decision that you alone have the power to make.

Language must be in constant use in order to become part of a personʼs life, and that use includes listening, speaking, and being surrounded by language. The living and working space of the second-language learner should have the target language all over as the physical space becomes a reflection of the desired internal space, which is multilingual and in our case Tlingit-focused.

In thinking about learning and teaching Tlingit, the following list is presented as a path to fluency:

▪kinship & clans
▪essential phrases
▪introduction to the Tlingit verb
▪modifying nouns
▪directional & relational terms
▪verbs & grammatical structure

The second-language learner must spend time memorizing lists of words and thinking about how they function in the language. In addition, relationships between people, places, the natural world, and the supernatural world must always be considered from the Tlingit perspective. In order to think in Tlingit, a student must always be questioning whether communication is orginating from the English speaking world or the Tlingit speaking world. While there is fun to be had with translations of English concepts like song lyrics, movie titles, and other pop-culture items, that must be balanced with what our ancestors have left for us.

Also, grammatical rules must be considered and understood over time. A second language cannot be learned without internalizing the grammar, and that function works differently for second-language speakers than it does for birth speakers. That is one of the reasons many people say it is harder to learn when you are older, but in reality it is just different. A human childʼs mind is wired to language acquisition, but I think that the mind is always ready for language acquisition. We just live in a society that tried to kill off native languages for a handful of colonizing languages, and we will find reasons all over the place to not learn language.

People were told that their languages were too simplistic, or were the work of the devil. Now we are told that the global market needs to focus on a small number of languages and there is no place in modern economies for native languages. These are the same pieces of rhetoric that mask a concept of racial superiority that we have the power to reject when we live with our languages. We have been told over and over to speak our languages, so that is what we are going to do.

Tlingit Culture

Tlingit culture flows through the language. While you are learning the language, you should always be pressing for a stronger understanding of how Tlingit culture is thought about from the perspective of the fluent speaker. As Keihéenákʼw John Martin once said:

Haa k̲usteeyí, haa jeet has awatée, yá Aas K̲wáani.
Our culture & life, was given to us from them, the Tree People.

Our challenge is to think of these things from a Tlingit perspective. There will be times when you try to translate something, whether it is a joke or a concept, and it seems to not work in English. There will also be times when you look at soemthing translated much differently once you have internalized more language.

As a learner, keep in mind that the path to fluency involves a fluency in the culture as well, and the English speaking part of your mind likes to challenge what you are trying to think about in Tlingit. When you work with Tlingit, especially engaging with fluent speakers, cultural leaders, and listening to recordings from a time when language and cultural fluency was much higher, you will enrich your life in immeasurable ways.

Below is a short list of cultural values that you should focus on while learning Tlingit. There will be many more that emerge in your own journey, but you should keep the Tlingit cultural context in mind while learning, and always try to see the way your elders are thinking about things.

▪clan property & clan law
▪clan relationships

Tlingit Worldview

You are going to see that language reveals another thought world, and will give you a glimpse into the way that Tlingit people viewed and thought about the world long ago. This concept is captured marvelously by scholar and language advocate Oscar Kawagley in his speech at the Nurturing Indigenous Language Conference in 2003:

Nature contains the creatures, plants, and elements of Nature that have named and defined themselves to my ancestors and are naming and defining them- selves to me. My ancestors made my language from Nature. When I speak Yupiaq, I am thrust into the thought world of my ancestors.

To think of the world in these terms takes a lot of time and focus. The journey to language revitalization is absolutely a spiritual one on the personal and the group level. Because of that, we have been told to have strength and courage. One of my teachers, Shgaté Jessie Johnnie used to call me and say, “you are soaking in the icy waters for your people,” and that is how it is.

The list below are items to keep in mind while learning Tlingit. As you become a speaker, your view of how these things function will likely shift as you allow another consciousness to form in your mind, body and spirit.

▪time & space
▪natural world
▪supernatural world
▪group identity
▪individual identity

Cyril George quote from: George, Cyril. “K̲aalk̲áawu X̲ʼéidáx̲ Lingít Yoo X̲ʼatángi Daat (Tlingit Language).” trans. Lance Twitchell. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DP2EVBtUrc.

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