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Tlingit bingo: How a Yukon daycare is passing on an Indigenous language

'Repetition, repetition, repetition,' says Deborah Baerg, cultural projects and language coordinator with the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. 'That's how they're picking it up.'

The Carcross/Tagish 'language nest' aims to get kids learning as early as possible

Students learn through games, Tlingit versions of kids songs, and on Fridays - bingo. (Max Leighton)

It's Friday morning, and while much of Yukon is starting work, a group of preschoolers in the village of Carcross is playing bingo.

It's part of the daily "language nest" at the Haa Yatx'i Hidi early childhood education centre at Carcross/Tagish First Nation. Launched in 2013, the program is designed to introduce local kids to the Tlingit language.

An endangered language

The language of the Tlingit people is Indigenous to parts of today's southeast Alaska, southern Yukon and northern B.C.

Like other Indigenous languages across the continent, the assimilative effects of colonialism — including Canada's residential school system — have drastically diminished the number of fluent speakers.

Today, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) considers the Tlingit language "critically endangered" in both Canada and Alaska.

Games and songs

Programs like the Carcross/Tagish language nest aim to get kids learning as early as possible. 

"Repetition, repetition, repetition," says Deborah Baerg, cultural projects and language coordinator with the First Nation. "That's how they're picking it up."

Baerg is learning the language herself, and admirably, how to teach it in 20-minute increments to kids not long out of diapers.

That requires lots of games. And a lot of singing, mostly Tlingit versions of kids songs like Twinkle twinkle little star and It's good to see you this morning.

On Fridays, they play bingo.

Baerg and instructor Bessie Jim call the games, circling the kid's table with pictures of plants and local animals, repeating the words in the Tlingit language, as the kids knit their brows and scan their bingo cards.

Deborah Baerg is the Cultural Projects & Language Coordinator at Carcross/Tagish First Nation. She leads the language nest at Haa Yatx'i Hidi. (Max Leighton)

Reclaiming a language

Like Baerg, Jim is both a trainer and a student. 

I tell them, don't forget your language. Every time I see them I tell them.- Winnie Atlin

She's relearning her language as an adult, and she teaches because she wants the kids to have an opportunity she was denied.

"When I went to the residential school, I didn't speak the language," she said.

"It was hard for me to try to say some of the words because I thought in my mind, my conscious where I put it away, that I would get in trouble if I speak my language."

Elder Winnie Atlin is also on hand. At 92-years-old, she's a "birth speaker," meaning she grew up speaking the language's local inland dialect.  

She's watched that dialect's usage fade in her lifetime. But during the four years she's worked at Haa Yatx'i Hidi, she says she's also seen students become fledgling speakers.

"The older ones, when I see them now, they ask me how I feel, in our language. And they say, 'it was nice to see you,' in our language," she said. "So, 'good,' I tell them, 'don't forget your language.' Every time I see them, I tell them."

Learning from Atlin is as much a priority for Baerg as teaching the children.

"We have only three birth speakers left," Baerg said, "when we lose these three fluent speakers, that's going to be it — we won't have that dialect."

Kids listen to each other count in the Tlingit language, using a newly-discovered CBC audio recorder. (Max Leighton)

'I am not going to give up'

To keep the dialect alive, Baerg says, the community needs a language house. She envisions a centre for total immersion, with not a word of English spoken there.  

"Right now it's not in the works, and it's too bad," she said. "But I am still going to keep pushing. I am not going to give up."

After one more boisterous round of It's good to see you this morning, the lesson is done for the day.

And though they sing it like any group of wound-up kids, at any daycare in the country, this group singing together in their own traditional language is obviously something special. 

About the Author

Max Leighton is a producer and reporter for CBC Yukon. He's worked as a radio producer and news reporter for CBC in Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo and Iqaluit.