With fewer than 400 speakers, can the Gwich'in language survive?

With fewer than 400 Gwich'in speakers in the country, some northerners are questioning whether the language can survive — though at least one Gwich'in language advocate is optimistic that the situation is improving.

Gwich'in radio show host says it's a daily struggle to find guests that speak the language

"I want to hear more people speaking in the language and not just only myself on the show," says Karen Mitchell, host of Nantaii. (Katherine Barton/CBC)

With fewer than 400 Gwich'in speakers in the country, some northerners are questioning whether the language can survive — though at least one Gwich'in language advocate is optimistic that the situation is improving.

"When I was young there was a lot of shame around speaking [it]," says William Firth, the Gwich'in language manager for the Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute in the N.W.T.

'The younger people seem more interested in learning than when I was young,' says William Firth, language manager for the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute in Fort McPherson. (Gwich'in Tribal Council)

Firth says he's "now hearing more young people who understand," and is encouraged by the number of youth who have a strong desire to learn.

According to the 2011 census, 375 people identified as speaking the Gwich'in language in Canada. Most live in the N.W.T. communities of Fort McPherson, Aklavik, Inuvik and Tsiigehtchic and Old Crow, Yukon. 

Firth acknowledges that the language is at a critical juncture, but says — with the increase of technology — teaching Gwich'in is only becoming easier.

For example, the institute is currently developing an online dictionary, where students can hear the words they're looking at — which Firth says is key for language acquisition.

But, according to Firth, learning really has to start in the home — something he says the institute wants help with.

"We really want more parents to get involved, and we need help figuring out how to make that happen."

CBC Gwich'in radio host struggles to find guests

The host of Nantaii, CBC's only Gwich'in language radio show, says she's acutely aware of how few people speak her language. 

Karen Mitchell said only a handful of fluent speakers call in on a regular basis.

"I want to hear more people speaking in the language and not just only myself on the show," she said. 

Nantaii is a platform for news, interviews, and public announcements, but Mitchell said there are so few fluent Gwich'in speakers that interviews are often conducted in English. The show airs weekday afternoons.

Mitchell took over the show in November 2015, after longtime host Ruth Carroll retired.

She said elders asked her to take the show on, but now she questions whether she's doing enough to promote and preserve the language. A certified language instructor, she wonders whether it would be more effective to quit the show and teach. 

Mitchell also wonders whether she's reaching enough young people. 

"I am trying to engage on social media like Facebook," Mitchell said.

CBC North optimistic

Janice Stein, managing director of CBC North, said despite the small Gwich'in audience compared to CBC's other aboriginal language programs, she doesn't believe the size of the audience will reach a low enough number to cancel the show.

"I don't think that low threshold will come. If anything, I think we will have an increase in the use of language," Stein said.

"It's our mandate to serve our communities," says Janice Stein, Managing Director of CBC North. (CBC)

Stein is the process of having all of CBC North's aboriginal language radio shows added to an on-demand service. She said the shows could be used for educational purposes and potentially reach more speakers.

"You don't have to listen to it when it airs in the afternoon. You can listen to it in the evenings, and it's a way to pass on culture to your children," Stein said.

Learning tool

Jacey Firth-Hagen, 22, is trying to drive that interest. Firth is behind the Gwich'in Language Revival Campaign and the hashtag #SpeakGwichinToMe.

Firth is not fluent in Gwich'in, but strives to be one day. She says listening to Nantaii is a good tool that has helped her learn the language. She says radio is still important to youth.

"When Karen Mitchell got hired to be the new speaker of Nantaii, I got so excited," says Jacey Firth-Hagen. (CBC)

"I don't think there is an age divide, it's just whether you are available to listen to the radio show at whatever time," Firth-Hagen said.

"I am just fluent enough to understand what they are talking about."

Firth-Hagen was happy to hear Nantaii may soon be on a on-demand service. She is currently working a summer job in Yellowknife and is not able to listen to the show during the day. She would also like to see Nantaii get its own Facebook page.

with files from Mitch Wiles, Rachel Zelniker