Language Revitalization


I am engaged in a number of language revitalization projects, for both the Weledeh and Tetsǫ́t'ıné languages, in collaboration with the Goyatıkǫ̀ Language Centre in Yellowknife, supported by the National Science Foundation (Award ID: ARC 1204171), Akaitcho Territory Government, Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency, and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. Please click on the links below to learn more about these projects.

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Intermediate-level Readers.

There tends to be a gap in the kinds of materials available for teaching aboriginal languages. On the one hand there are basic materials such as posters, flashcards, etc. teaching single words such as numbers, colors, days of the week, and the names of common plants and animals, while at the other end there are many materials produced by linguists, such as grammars and texts collections, which usually require that the reader be either already fluent in the language, or have some formal training in linguistics (or both) in order to appreciate them. The intent of the intermediate-level readers is to bridge this gap: to provide original, authentic texts by local elders, in a format which is accessible to young people learning the language.

As part of my NSF grant, I am preparing an intermediate-level reader in each of the two Yellowknives Dene languages, Weledeh and Tetsǫ́t'ıné. The stories are all told by local elders, which I transcribe with the help of the speakers themselves and Goyatıkǫ̀ Language Centre staff. The content of the stories follows the Dene Kede curriculum, which is the standard curriculum for teaching aboriginal languages in the Northwest Territories. This means that most of the stories are about animals, such as moose, bear, beaver, muskox, rabbit, etc. Our goal, over the next several years, is to include at least two stories about each animal in both languages. The reader includes:

  • Original stories by local elders;
  • Comprehension questions in the language;
  • A running glossary at the bottom of each page, with grammatical notes;
  • A vocabulary summary at the end of each story;
  • Verb paradigms at the end of each story.

An excerpt from the Weledeh reader may be downloaded here.

The reader is not intended as an end in and of itself, but rather as a starting point, around which teachers can build a lesson on culturally appropriate topics. Goyatıkǫ̀ also works with local schools to help teachers with materials development.

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Verb Dictionaries.

This project is an extension of my dissertation work. I am working on two verb dictionaries, one in Weledeh and the other in Tetsǫ́t'ıné, which are basically a collection of verb paradigms (27 forms for each verb), inspired by the popular 501 Verbs series. This type of work serves a number of purposes. It aids Dene Literacy in that it makes it possible to spell verbs correctly without memorizing a number of complex rules—one can simply go look up the word in the verb dictionary. It contributes to language documentation in that many verb forms are simply irregular, and have to be lexically listed and memorized—most of these forms tend to be missed by descriptive grammars that outline a series of rules. Finally, a list of verb paradigms can be used by language teachers, in constructing lessons about grammar. Each dictionary includes:

  • The complete paradigm of 200 verbs, in all 27 forms (1st, 2nd, 3rd person; singular, dual, plural; perfective, imperfective, optative);
  • Example sentences at the bottom of each page, taken from elders’ stories;
  • All examples in both Roman script and syllabics (Tetsǫ́t'ıné version only);
  • Explanation of syllabic writing system (Tetsǫ́t'ıné version only);
  • Explanation of basic grammatical concepts (person, number, agreement, etc.);
  • Explanation of verb structure and phonological rules.

An excerpt from the Tetsǫ́t'ıné verb dictionary may be downloaded here.

For the near future, we merely intend to publish the verb dictionaries on paper, through ANLC press (i.e by late 2014 or early 2015). However, in the future, we hope to create a digital version (either online, or on CD-ROM). In the digital version, each word in a verb paradigm will be clickable, and linked to a digital sound file, so one will be able to click on the verb and hear it pronounced. In addition, one will also be able to click on each verb form (or hover over it), and see a morpheme-by-morpheme gloss pop up, based on data entered into the wordforms and morphemes databases (see here). Some examples are given in (1).

We hope this will be a useful teaching tool, for young people wanting to learn more about the structure of Dene languages.

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Chipewyan Hymn Songs.

Historically, the primary language of the Yellowknives Dene was Tetsǫ́t'ıné or Tsetsǫ́t’ıné, the Yellowknife language, usually considered a dialect of Chipewyan or Dëne Sų́łiné. Because Chipewyan was the main language of the community, the elders also knew how to read and write in syllabics. The elders wrote everything in syllabics: phone lists, grocery lists, letters to friends and relatives, and even birch bark messages to leave along the trail, when out on the land. The hymn book used in church, Prières, Catéchisme, et Cantiques (1904) was also written in Chipewyan syllabics (based on a northern Saskatchewan dialect). However, because the language is being lost, younger people do not know how to read or write in syllabics, and also cannot read or understand the hymns used in church. This situation has contributed to a breakdown of communication between elders and youth in the community.

In response to this situation, we are working on a booklet with 10 Chipewyan (Dëne Sų́łiné) hymns, from the 1904 hymn book, transliterated into Roman orthography, translated into English, along with musical notation, and an accompanying audio CD. We will also put on (in late 2013 and early 2014) one or more syllabics workshops in the community, and organize a community voluteer choir, where community members will practice singing the songs, with musical accomopaniment (piano, guitar), and thus learn the language through singing. Stay tuned for updates!

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Dene Literacy Classes.

I have taught a number of Dene Literacy classes for adults at Goyatıkǫ̀ Language Centre, offered through Aurora College as part of the ALCIP program (Aboriginal Language and Culture Instructor Program).

  • Introduction to Linguistics (September 2009)
  • Dene Literacy Level 1 (February 2012)
  • Dene Literacy Level 2 (February 2012)
  • Developing Aboriginal Language Teaching Materials (March 2012)

This program trains local aboriginal people to be language teachers, interpreters, and translators, or to do other language-related work in the community (such as working with elders to record traditional knowledge). My main focus in Dene Literacy teaching is correct spelling; tone, vowel length, and nasality are often difficult to hear, even for native speakers, so I teach some fairly simple rules which, at least for verbs, enable them to put the diacritical markings on vowels in the right place. This teaching is informed by my formal theoretical work but I don’t teach any formal linguistic theory in class—mainly, I just write a lot of verb paradigms on the board as examples.

We also offer courses in developing aboriginal language teaching materials. Our goal is to train our students (most of whom are fluent speakers of Weledeh, some of Chipewyan as well) to construct complete lessons in the language, delivered in Weledeh or Chipewyan. This is a very challenging task, mainly due to the lack of teaching materials currently available. However we are working on a variety of teaching materials (see below) so that teachers will have an easier time teaching in the language, without having to resort to English.

Update:  In July of 2015, I will also be teaching a course at the Navajo Language Academy in Tsaile, Arizona, entitled Tetsǫ́t'ıné and Wıı̀lıı̀deh Verbs: Morphology and Phonology.

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L.J.C. et M.I. 1904. Prières, Catéchisme et Cantiques, en langue Montagnaise ou Chipewyan. ᑌᓀ ᔭᕱᔦ ᑎᐠᕄᓯ. Société Saint-Augustin Desclée, De Brouwer et Cie, Bruges.

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