Online Tłı̨chǫ language class sees enrolment rise during pandemic

The students are an eclectic group, including newcomers to Yellowknife, government workers and expectant mothers looking to pass the language on to their children.

Language is 'a love story that hasn't been uncovered yet' says language instructor

Georgina Franki has been a Tlicho language instructor at Collège Nordique for three years. (John Van Dusen/CBC News)

Inside Yellowknife's Collège Nordique, Georgina Franki sits in front of a computer screen teaching a virtual language class to a group of students. Like many teachers during the pandemic, there's been a bit of a learning curve.

She's been teaching Tłıchǫ Yatıì for three years with the college, but this is the first time she's doing so online.

Navigating Zoom and learning how to run a class by herself has been quite a learning experience, but it enables her to reach many different people, she said. 

"I love it," she said, because it enables her to communicate with many different people. 

"You don't have to sit with them, but you can still teach them."

Enrolment is high enough for the college to run two Tłı̨chǫ beginner one classes.

The students are an eclectic group, including newcomers to Yellowknife, government workers and expecting mothers looking to pass the language on to their children.

In one recent class, students practiced the language in a round of Jeopardy, where categories included medicinal plants and introductions.

In a recent class, students play a round of Tlicho Jeopardy. (Anna Desmarais/Zoom)

"I think the biggest thing that I'm proud of is our contribution to the revitalization of the language and culture," said Rosie Benning, the language programmer at Collège Nordique.

Benning, who has a background in teaching foreign languages, helped Franki develop lesson plans and the curriculum. She says the students and the teacher have embraced the opportunity to learn virtually.

"[Franki's] enthusiasm and love for the language is really infectious. I feel that the students feel it and you can't help but just want to learn more just by being in her presence," Benning said.

A 'hunter of stories'

Jennifer Bowen has been taking an online Tlicho language course at Collège Nordique. (Submitted by Jennifer Bowen)

Jennifer Bowen has been taking the beginner Tłıchǫ Yatıì class from Victoria, where she is completing her master's degree in art history at University of Victoria.

Bowen grew up in Yellowknife and is a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. She remembers the language being around her, but never picked it up.

"Nobody was really hammering it into us," she said.

"But I think today, you know, with my own kids, I feel like language is so much more important and there's ideas and values in the language in how we, as Dene see and engage the environment we live in," she said.

"It is connected to family. It is connected to those relationships. But a lot of us were impacted by residential schools and we're disconnected from those family links."

At home, Bowen's family spoke only English.

"My mother is gone now," she said. "My mother ... was in five different [residential] schools in the Northwest Territories when she was growing up. So she got moved around quite a bit and she spoke different languages."

Bowen has now learned how to introduce herself in Tłı̨chǫ, with help from Franki. Bowen, who is researching northern Athabaskan culture, was trying to figure out how to describe what she was doing.

Right away, she said Franki came up with the answer — Bowen is a "hunter of stories."

"Once you understand the language, you understand the ideology and values of the people. The language holds the key to how our ancestors saw and understood the world we operate in," said Bowen.

'A love story'

For Franki, teaching the course is more than just teaching a language.

"When I teach, I teach about what my Elders and how my grandma would have spoken to me, in the endearing way, instead of like today. We have like a rushed slang," she said.

"There's a story behind the language itself. I think it's a love story that hasn't been uncovered yet."

with files from Anna Desmarais