March is Aboriginal Languages Month in the Northwest Territories, and a language revival course is opening new doors and possibilities for those who want to learn one of the territory's 11 official tongues.

Aboriginal Language Revitalization is a four-year program taught out of the University of Victoria, but based in the N.W.T. It pairs fluent speakers with a group of adult students interested in learning Dene Zhatie — also known as South Slavey. Currently, there are 17 students in the program, including Fort Simpson's Dahti Tsetso, who was paired with Violet Jumbo.

"In the Dene way, the language and the culture intertwine," says Tsetso, "so if you don't have one, you're really missing out. It's really important for me to be able to claim that, and be able to share it with others."

Aboriginal languages in decline

The Aboriginal Languages Revitalization program is one of many ways N.W.T. residents are attempting to connect with their traditional culture — an effort that's more important than ever, according to University of Calgary professor Darin Flynn.

"It rests with the youth," he said, speaking about keeping traditional languages alive. "If the young people want to become fire keepers of the languages, they have to make a real decision to own it."

Tsetso Jumbo language

Dahti Tsetso and her mentor Violet Jumbo read a story together in Dene Zhatie. Tsetso only knew a few words when she started the program, but can now speak in sentences. Jumbo says she's enjoyed hearing her develop as a speaker: 'She's doing it!' (Submitted by Dahti Tsetso)

The latest aboriginal language statistics for the territory don't paint a flattering picture. According to the 2011 census, 5,400 people say they learned an indigenous language as their mother tongue, and only 2,400 speak it at home. Both of those numbers are in decline. 

More N.W.T. residents speak Tagalog, a Philippine-based language, at home than Cree, Dene, Chipewyan, Gwich'in and Inuinnaqtun — all official languages of the N.W.T. — combined.

There is hope for traditional languages, according to Flynn. Initiatives like immersion kindergarten and the Imbe Program, which teaches youth traditional activities in the Tlicho language, has led to a surge in speakers.

"Tlicho is doing amazingly because it actually has more younger speakers now than older speakers," says Flynn. 

"Languages aren't like species," he says. "It's not like they die and can't be revived... Languages can be revived from a small group of speakers."

'It's lots of good laughs'

Cheryl Cli is one of that small group. She's a fluent speaker of South Slavey, but decided to participate in the Aboriginal Languages Revitalization program to smooth out her speech.

"It has little nuances that you can't do in English," says Cli. "So it's lots of good laughs... lots of good laughs in class, as well."

Cli was mentored by her cousin Dora, who says their experience with the program was quite casual. "We did more conversation than activities, just because we're both very fluent.

"So we talked day to day, daily lives, our childhood and some of the elders that have gone before us. Just trying to catch up with sharing each other our experiences," she says.

Cli and the other students must put in 100 hours of conversation with their mentors over the duration of the program, with no English allowed. Between working with their mentors, students meet in Fort Providence to complete their course work with local language instructors, as well as university professors from Victoria.

"Mentor/apprentice is a very effective way for a number of people to learn, because it gives a lot of contact time between the learner and the speaker," says Peter Jacobs, an assistant professor in linguistics at the University of Victoria and the instructor of the course. "Whereas in a traditional classroom setting you only get the contact hours when you're in class, with this one, they have 100 hours with their mentor, and in class they learn different activities with the mentor."

"I'm really impressed with the progress," says Andy Norwegian, one of the local instructors. "Some of these students came to the class basically being able to say two words, and now they're able to speak in sentences.

"I know a lot of our instructors are reaching the retirement age, and I was worried about a succession plan. So I'm really encouraged to be part of this. And the way things are going, I'm really encouraged by it."

The class will meet again in May. Until then, the students will practice with their mentors.

Tsetso says that although learning the program isn't always easy — with funding being a key consideration for many students — the importance of keeping her language alive is well worth it.

"Azhı́ı dúwé! Łı́e dze nezų Dene K’ę́ę́ gohndeh Gha," she says, translating: 

"Anything is possible! One day, I will speak really good Dene!"