Bringing a language back from the brink is not easy work, but as the Gwich'in Language Revitalization program nears its second anniversary proves, it can be done.
With the United Nations reporting there are less than 300 fluent Gwich'in speakers in Canada — and less than 550 worldwide, time is of the essence to get people trigįįkhii (talking) in their mother tongue. Currently, Gwich'in is listed in the UN's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger.
"Language, ideally, is learned in the living room," said Gwich'in Tribal Council Language Revitalization Coordinator Andrew Cienski in a new documentary video released by the GTC to commemorate the event. "Language is how we describe the world that we live in and it reflects our relationship with the world.
"All of the knowledge of the environment is inside that language. The medicines and the plants and the animals. All of these things are what communities have learned over the millennia."
Produced by tencoulours Canada, the documentary video showcases two parallel efforts by the GTC to teach Gwich'in to its beneficiaries — one operated through the Children's First Centre (CFC)immersion pre-school children in the language and culture and the other was a series of round tables held in the fall of 2020 to help adults get practice speaking the language.
Even the people who now speak Gwich'in and teach it to others say it was not easy finding people to learn it from.
"When I went back to school when I was 51 years old, I thought I would get someone to come and help me with my language because I wanted to be an interpreter," said Elder Mabel English, who volunteers with the Gwich'in Language Nest at the CFC. "I couldn't get anybody."
Initially started as a half-day program, the Gwich'in Language Nest has now blossomed into a full-day experience for the children. Cienski said a second Elder had joined the program, enabling a complete day of language programming.
He added the GTC was always open to more volunteers for anyone who wanted to reconnect with their language.
"If Elders or speakers of any age were interested in helping out, we would be very happy to make that happen," said Cienski. "Even if they could only drop in occasionally we would love to have them, even on a drop in schedule. It is an exciting program and the joy of the children is really infectious.
"It’s wonderful to see them improving in the language. It would be great to see even more community members get involved to support the efforts of the staff and Elder who working so hard to bring language to the new generation."
To enroll your child in the Immersion program, contact the Children's First Centre at 777-3703. To volunteer with language revitalization, contact the Gwich'in Tribal Council at 777-7900.