Waking Up Sleeping Languages 1

I got this email from Ralph Wolfe, who directs a native language program in Yakutat, Alaska. I got it on December 6 and just now opened it up, so Ralph please accept my apologies. I know your program started in January and we should have gotten you some answers by now. But it’s never too late. Let’s start the discussion.

Of course, no one is qualified to address the question you raise below except the specialists in Florida and Oklahoma who have embraced comprehensible input as the way they want to approach the saving of their rapidly disappearing languages.

So Ralph, hopefully this blog post will serve as a springboard for further discussion with Jacob Manitowa and his team (Sauk), Kate Taluga (Myskoke) and Josh Hinson (Chickasaw) on how exactly to benefit from the remaining elders in each tribe to keep the language from going to sleep when they do.

I sent emails to those three to ask them to respond here in one place. You and they can and perhaps should establish your own network as well, as the work you are doing can arguably be said to be the most important work in language acquistion being done right now in the United States, by far.

Hi Ben,

I just got the books and the videos in, first of all thank you so much!!! I do have a couple more questions, first of all the stories that we are using are all going to be pre-wrote and will have a bunch of questions wrote out also. So that brings me right into the other question so our team is not by any means fluent in our language, we are all learning but are not fluent. We do have elders who are involved but not teachers, there will be one in the classroom while we teach, and we meet every other week to talk about lessons and translate words and new stories. I know this will work I am just not sure how? Does it seem like it will work to you? Any suggestions on how I could work this out?

Ralph Góos’k’ Wolfe



1 thought on “Waking Up Sleeping Languages 1”

  1. Ralph,
    Jacob and Josh have way more years working language programs than I do. They can give you a real benefit from their expertise. I am a beginning/emergent learner teaching at the same time I learn. The biggest thing I have to offer is SLOW and don’t expect fluency. In fact, I guarantee that your learners won’t outpace your teachers. True. What I am working on with my Elders is at a different level than I am teaching.
    I am sure you have a copy of Leann Hinton’s book “how to keep your language alive.” There are lots of great ideas in it for comprehensible input and while it is geared master/apprentice, the ideas are universal!

    The difficulty I ran into as a beginning language student teaching was I need scripts. I couldn’t just go into class and wing it. So that forces me to stay very simple. And what has real meaning to my children?
    For quick input I picked out some English books they were familiar with. I used Brown Bear by Eric Carle as so many of our stories in Mvskoke have the same animals. The students knew the rhyme and rhythm so they weren’t having to translate in their heads from English to Mvskoke so actively. They already knew the English. That was helpful. They’ve acquired through that book many of the conjugations of the verb–to see. And they know what and several animals and colors for description. Yesterday we began our own stories because that vocabulary was established for them. TPRS has allowed me to free up on the grammer issue also (a little). I just expect baby talk now if they actually even talk. right now just knowing the first meaning of words is important (the subtleties of a word will come later–the other meanings).

    We have some English spaces in our time together. And I don’t have classes everyday with the students. It is weekly and that is a long time to go between auditorial input. So, I make CDs that cover the target structures we are using. Your Elders could be a great benefit here. Their pronunciation is going to be far more accurate than your second language speakers (the teachers).

    And the biggest thing is to just take a few steps at a time. We gesture. We use songs a lot. I found that “my name is ….” in our language works well to the tune of Mary Had a Little Lamb. The children jumped all over a familiar tune and had the nuances and flow of the language after the second time of doing this song. It was amazing. It flows out of them now without singing. We also have a number song in our language. It is a traditional song for 1-10. They have it down. One of the boys wants to go beyond and is musical. I asked him to compose something for 11-20. We will see if he rises to the challenge.

    It also helps to have small classes. 10 people is a lot to let everyone have the personal time and attention of the teacher. But Jacob and Josh have worked with larger classes. My students are all under 12 except the adults in my tribal community that I teach informally a word here or there at community events. The adults learn the words of whatever we are doing. It is the same process of trying to make it comprehensible and not overwhelming.

    Stay simple. It will grow. AND GO SLOW. Despite the fact that we feel propelled to rush this as Elders leave us, be methodical and SLOW as you go. It will be retained longer and used more.

    I wish you well. Michelle Whaley is working with Native speakers through her school. You might want to talk with her some too. Her blog is listed on a side bar here and she is a regular on this blog site as well.

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