Can Tłı̨chǫ become a textbook case of language rebirth?

Tłı̨chǫ language lessons in Yellowknife have more than 100 students this fall and a new textbook just launched. Is this an example of revitalization working?

Rosie Benning and Georgina Franki held a celebration at Yellowknife’s Collège Nordique on Tuesday evening. In their hands, they held a copy of their new book: Tłı̨chǫ Yatıı̀ eyıts’ǫ Dǫ Nàowoò.

The textbook will serve as a guide for the 118 people who have signed up for courses in Tłı̨chǫ led by Benning and Franki. More lessons will be available starting in January.

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Franki, who says she taught herself Tłı̨chǫ using the New Testament during decades away from her home community, doesn’t want to stop there.

“Georgina says she wants Tłı̨chǫ Netflix,” said Benning, laughing.

The two form a double act in the college’s lessons (which, full disclosure, Cabin Radio’s reporters attend weekly). Benning, who isn’t Tłı̨chǫ but is the college’s language school manager, aims to act as “a bridge” between new speakers and Franki, who guides pronunciation and usage.

The college’s program has grown significantly in the past few years: this fall, there are five times the number of students that signed up in 2018.

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Some students sign up because they need the language for work. Some, said Benning, “just come because they feel like it’s the right thing to do as a resident of Yellowknife and the NWT – as an act of reconciliation, they take the classes.”

Others are younger Tłı̨chǫ people looking to reconnect with family members.

Newly published data from the 2021 census suggests Tłı̨chǫ has the most young speakers of the nine official Indigenous languages in the Northwest Territories.

The bad news is that, as a whole, the number of NWT residents with an Indigenous language as their mother tongue continues to decline – from 4,950 in 2016 to 4,485 last year.

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But the census also showed the unusual health of the Tłı̨chǫ language among young people.

An NWT Bureau of Statistics graph shows the number of people who can speak each Indigenous language in the NWT, by age group, according to 2021 census data. (The bureau still refers to Sahtúot’ı̨nę Yatı̨́ as North Slavey and Dene Zhatıe as South Slavey.)

There are just over 2,000 people in the territory who report being able to speak Tłı̨chǫ. Of those, the NWT Bureau of Statistics reported, more than half were aged 44 or younger. The bureau stated Tłı̨chǫ is an exception among Indigenous languages in the NWT, most of which are predominantly spoken by older people.

Almost 600 people aged 24 or younger told the census they can speak some Tłı̨chǫ. Only two other Indigenous languages in the territory reported having even 100 speakers in that age group.

‘Still a long way to go’

Tammy Steinwand, director of the Department of Culture and Lands Protection at the Tłı̨chǫ Government, greets those statistics with caution.

As Benning and Franki were launching their textbook in Yellowknife, Steinwand was taking part in a communications workshop involving Tłı̨chǫ youth and Elders.

“One of our questions to them is: how do we strengthen Tłı̨chǫ Yatıı̀?” Steinwand said. “How do we do more for the youth who are not speakers?

“The youth had all kinds of ideas. One of their biggest messages is to use social media, to create tools on there to help them to learn Tłı̨chǫ Yatıı̀. They are visual learners, so create videos and have more language-on-the-land programming.”

Rosie Benning discusses an increase in registrations for her course. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Steinwand says the goal must be for every child growing up in the Tłı̨chǫ communities – Behchokǫ̀, Gamètì, Wekweètì and Whatì – to learn some of their language. But she is not convinced the statistics match the picture on the ground.

“Thirty, 40 years ago, many of our children grew up in homes where Tłı̨chǫ Yatıı̀ was the first language. Today, it isn’t any more. That’s part of the challenge: those of us that speak, if we don’t use the language regularly and fluently in our homes, our children or grandchildren are not going to learn it. If we want our children to learn it, they need to hear it,” she said.

The census data bears out this concern.

Tucked away in the NWT Bureau of Statistics report is a note that “the number of people for whom an Indigenous language was the language spoken most often at home declined from 2,045 to 1,665 between 2016 and 2021.” Tłįchǫ was part of that decline, the bureau stated.

“When we look at our language internally, within our region, it’s in our youth where there aren’t as many speakers,” said Steinwand.

“Those of us that work in language revitalization? Our focus has always been the young people. The statistics are great, but those of us in the region feel there is still a long way to go.”

Tłı̨chǫ for Dummies

That work starts at Tłı̨chǫ schools.

Steinwand praises the NWT’s Department of Education, Culture and Employment for the creation of its language curriculum. “I think ECE has done a great job,” she said, describing how immersion programming helps children in the youngest grades and how classrooms have multiple language-speakers working with students.

But she is also a supporter of Collège Nordique’s program, particularly the idea that younger Tłı̨chǫ adult learners are signing up to reconnect with their language.

“We have a lot of young parents that don’t speak,” she said. “This is an opportunity for young parents that want to learn, especially through evening programming when they aren’t working. Anything like that, spaces that invite fluent speakers and language learners to come together, all of that I feel really contributes to language revitalization.”

At the outset of each course, Benning asks students what they want to learn. Sometimes, she said, students are moms who want to be able to talk to their kids in Tłı̨chǫ.

Franki enthusiastically insists students need as little as 10 minutes to wrap their heads around a few simple words of the language. Benning says you can be reasonably competent in a year or two.

“People who’ve taken the classes for a couple of years are able to listen to the radio and they can tell you what the weather is like in Behchokǫ̀ or Whatì. They’re not fluent, but they’re getting there,” she said.

Franki, introducing the textbook, recalled wandering into book stores like Chapters and Indigo in Toronto. “When you walk in,” she said, “there’s always a book that says ‘for dummies.’ I thought that we needed to do Tłı̨chǫ for Dummies.”

“This year, I’m finally accepting and saying I’m a professor,” Franki continued.

“I’m on a healing journey. In a residential school survivor. My mom is. I was a Charles Camsell medical experiment for four years. I’m also a day school survivor. I learned to forgive and now I’m healing. And when you’re healing, you get to share.”

And she’s only half-joking about Netflix.

“They have every language you can imagine except Tłı̨chǫ. So…”