North

Endangered Tlingit language has only a few hundred speakers. This 13-year-old is trying to change that

A mother and daughter from Yukon have been studying hard to join a group that's shrunk to just a few hundred people worldwide — those who are fluent in the Tlingit language.

'Mariella is really advanced, compared to me,' says mom Cherish Clarke

Learning Tlingit has been an 'incredible experience,' says Mariella Wentzell, 12, of Whitehorse. The critically endangered language is spoken by only a few hundred people in southeast Alaska and parts of northern B.C. and southern Yukon. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Cherish Clarke grew up hearing the Tlingit language spoken, but it was years before she fully grasped how special that was.

"I was really grateful that I was, I think, one of the last generation to really grow up listening to my grandparents speak the language," said the Whitehorse mother of two.

"It's difficult because when you're really young, you don't understand the significance of what's happening."

Now Clarke, 36, is making up for lost time by delving into her cultural and linguistic heritage alongside her 13-year-old daughter, Mariella Wentzell.

The two, both members of the Atlin, B.C.-based Taku River Tlingit First Nation, have been studying and working to master the Tlingit language.

Tlingit is spoken throughout southeast Alaska and parts of northern B.C. and southern Yukon. According to the Endangered Languages Project, it is "critically endangered," with only about 200 native speakers worldwide. The Alaska Native Language Centre puts the figure a bit higher, at about 500 in that state alone.

"I think when Mariella was born, I realized the importance of the language and that we were losing our first speakers at an accelerated rate," Clarke said.

Started with French

Clarke enrolled her daughter in French immersion at a young age, figuring that knowing more than one language would help Mariella learn still more. Then last year, Clarke asked if Mariella wanted to learn Tlingit with her.

"I was like, 'Sure, let's do it,'" Mariella recalled.

Cherish Clarke with Mariella and son Jett. (Submitted by Cherish Clarke)

Tlingit is not considered an easy language to learn, as Mariella has discovered.

"It has different rules of grammar and sentence structure, and it also includes a larger alphabet and sounds [than English or French]," Mariella said.

Mariella and Clarke began in summer 2020 with four weeks of intensive classes organized by the Children of the Taku Society, a local non-profit that's focused on Tlingit cultural preservation and revitalization. They learned 435 Tlingit words over those weeks, Clarke said.

That was followed last fall and winter by weekly immersion classes. Every Friday, Clarke and Mariella would participate in three 90-minute lessons, which Clarke said would leave them drained by the end of the day.  

A typical lesson would involve a handful of new sentences to learn and maybe a dozen new words, with an emphasis on Total Physical Response, a language teaching method that pairs physical movement with verbal input.

Mariella's school, F.H. Collins in Whitehorse, allowed some flexibility in her class schedule last year so she could have those Fridays to study Tlingit. 

"I'm just thankful that, you know, the education system was able to support her in her language journey and learning Tlingit," Clarke said. 

"Mariella is really advanced, compared to me."

WATCH | Mariella shows off what se has learned in her Tlingit langauge classes:

Mariella Wentzell, 12, speaks the Tlingit language

2 months ago
0:36
Mariella Wentzell and her mother are both working to learn the language of the Atlin, B.C.-based Taku River Tlingit First Nation, despite its challenging grammar and sentence structure. Wentzell gives us a tour of what she's learned. 0:36

'An incredible experience'

Mariella is planning on taking more Tlingit lessons this semester while Clarke has been taking lessons through Zoom with an Alaskan instructor. Clarke is also working on an online Tlingit dictionary.

Mariella said it's "amazing" to be learning her native language. She enjoys it when her friends at school ask her to teach them some words.

"It definitely has been an incredible experience," Mariella said.

Clarke hopes they can inspire others.

"We're born on this earth with no language, so I know that language training for anyone can feel like a really unattainable goal," Clarke said.

"We just hope that we can help other people learn more about the language because there's so many people right now that recognize the importance of Indigenous languages."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story reported Mariella's age as 12, in fact Mariella is 13.
    Sep 30, 2021 10:08 AM CT

With files from Elyn Jones

now