Language Matters

BY KAYLYN HASLUND
For the UAS Whalesong
It’s no surprise to anyone on our UAS campus that our community is making efforts to preserve and showcase the living language of native peoples, not just in Juneau, but in all of the world. Language Matters and that is the name of the first in a film series currently running over the next week, and it helps show both the downfall of some languages and the resurgences of others.
In light of the recent Board of Regents meetings, where students voiced their concerns for Alaskan Native culture/ language and how to keep it alive, this film shows that it is completely possible to save these languages and rejuvenate the culture. In part of that, there are new steps, that I saw in the first film, which could be used to help Alaskan Natives.
The first film, Language Matters, was presented by Bob Holman, who was also the narrator of the film. The film presented language as precisely what it is, a living breathing part of culture and community, and that without language, culture fades. It was very moving and showed more sides to how language and its life matter in terms of culture and community.
It spans over Australia, Wales, and Hawaii, all three places that are trying to keep their languages alive. This brought to light the brutality of English speakers who colonized the areas as they pleased. And we see it here in Alaska, but we also see the steps being taken to bring these cultures back, especially in the similar footsteps of Hawaii and their work to bring Hawaiian back into their everyday lives.
In Australia, the film showed me that there were 300 languages once spoken and now fewer than 50 of them remain and this only includes so many people in very specific areas of the country. In northern Australia we see entire cities that have immersion schools and everyday life in multiple languages. But that doesn’t mean Australia is prevailing in preserving Aboriginal languages. We have languages that only have one speaker left and little time left to share that language. It’s a frightening prospect.
Wales, however, is a success story as seen in the film. In 1536, English became the official language of Wales, but in 1956 Wales revolted in response to the flooding of Capulcellen to give water to Liverpool. This revolt brought Welsh back into the forefront of official languages. It has been revitalized in an amazing way, through cultural events and music, which possibly could help preserve our own Alaskan languages.
Then there is Hawaii, which Alaskan efforts seem to most  admire and also take lesson from. In 1890, America overthrew the Queen and Hawaii became a republic of the US. Slowly, English speaking teachers and missionaries destroyed the language, but the 60s and 70s saw a Cultural Renaissance for the state. They began immersion schools, revitalized the Chant and music. They live out the saying that there is ‘no culture without language.’
Now the question is raised: Can we do the same for Alaskan Native language? I think the answer is yes, and we’ve already clearly begun making the effort in both Tlingit language and history courses. However, with the film still in mind, we can do more, especially with the resources we have been given. We can begin teaching in schools much earlier, have the children speaking it as early as 1st grade. If we can do it with French or Spanish immersion schools, then we can do it with Tlingit.
If anything this film showed more ways in which we as a community can take steps to save Native Alaskan languages.

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