A ‘nest’ where children, and a language, are nurtured (video)

For endangered languages, the key to survival is producing fluent speakers. One Alaska Native community finds hope in – and help from – its youngest members. 

Tanan Ch’at’oh is not your typical preschool. Along with the usual group activities, free play time, and naps, children who spend their days here are immersed in Gwich’in – an endangered Alaska Native language with fewer than 250 advanced speakers. 

The approach is called the “language nest” model (Tanan Ch’at’oh actually translates to “Fairbanks Nest”). The goal is to get kids to learn an endangered language by exposing them regularly to fluent or semifluent speakers. Indigenous language revival efforts in places like New Zealand and Hawaii have successfully used the model

“The fact that we’re creating a set of young people who are going to be ... able to carry our language forward into the future is incredibly significant,” says Evon Peter, an Indigenous language advocate and director of the Ch’at’oh. 

The challenges are tremendous. With so few Gwich’in speakers remaining, finding teachers with experience is difficult. Even the Ch’at’oh’s lead teacher, Hilda Johnson, is still learning the language herself. 

But for the Gwich’in language advocates and parents, the work is not only worth it, but also necessary. “Our way of life is so embedded in our language,” Mr. Peter says. “It’s rich with knowledge, and it’s connected to our identity and who we are as Gwich’in people.” 

And though the day care has only been running for a year, the rewards are already evident. 

“The more we were consistent [in speaking the language], they started understanding us,” Ms. Johnson says. “When the children come to me and say something in Gwich’in, it just brings sometimes tears to my eyes.”

This video was reported as part of “Say That Again?” – a podcast series about accent, language, and identity in the United States today. Find all of the episodes on our main page

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