Gwich'in language program pairs fluent speakers with 'apprentices'

A program is aiming to help "apprentice" Gwich'in language speakers become fluent by pairing them with masters of the language.

Program aims to foster more mentors in a language with few speakers but many wanting to learn

Inuvik, N.W.T., resident Annie Smith currently isn't able to speak Gwich'in fluently, but she hopes to change that.

"Because I'm Gwich'in and our language is dying out, I'm really interesting in learning the language and hoping I can learn at least how to speak and carry on a conversation," she says.

A new pilot program called the Master-Apprentice Program aims to do just that. Nine apprentices will be paired with nine masters of the Gwich'in language.

Annie Smith of Inuvik, N.W.T., is taking part in a new program to try and learn to speak Gwich'in fluently. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

"There's not many speakers of the Gwich'in' language — not many fluent speakers — and there are a lot of young people and middle-aged people wanting to learn," says Eleanor Mitchell-Firth, a coordinator at the Gwich'in Language Centre.

"Some of them might know the language but can't speak very well, so this will help them do that."

Sharon Snowshoe, director of the Gwich'in Tribal Council's Department of Cultural Heritage, says that according to the 2011 National Household Survey, there were 315 Gwich'in speakers in the Northwest Territories.

The three-year Master-Apprentice Program will have three teams of masters and apprentices each from Fort McPherson, Inuvik and Aklavik. The program will focus directly on speaking, and will work on getting the apprentices immersed in the language.

Mitchell-Firth said the program was inspired by a training workshop in Vancouver she attended in 2015 with the organization First Peoples' Cultural Council.

"I found it very exciting that they had fluent speakers coming out of this program so I thought it would be good for us to start something up here like this," said Mitchell-Firth.

300 hours a year

Although the program was tried before in the past, this is the first time where there will be training for both the masters and apprentices. The two-day training was on Feb. 6 and was held in Inuvik.

The mentors and apprentices can decide how much they want to get together and communicate, but Mitchell-Firth says they have to log about 300 hours a year.

"What we are hoping to get out of it are fluent speakers who then in turn will become mentors, and just have it continue on."

Smith said she is always striving to become better at the Gwich'in language and is currently teaching the basics at classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Inuvik run by the Nihtat Gwich'in Council.

"Even walking downtown when I meet some elders, they say some words in Gwich'in. They ask me how I'm doing, or 'it's cold outside.' I know those words, but I need to know more."


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