News-Miner opinion: The number of Alaska Native language speakers is declining at an alarming rate. A biennial report published earlier this month by the Alaska Native Language Preservation Advisory Council says if the “rates of decline were to continue as they have been since the 1970s, all Alaska Native languages may lose their last fluent speakers by the end of the 21st century.”
The Alaska Legislature created the Alaska Native Language Preservation Advisory Council in 2012 and tasked it with recommending legislation to preserve, restore and revitalize Alaska Native languages.
So how important is having a fluent speaker to the survival of a language? In 2008, the last speaker of the Eyak language died; Eyak has since been declared an extinct language.
There are 20 federally recognized Alaska Native languages in Alaska. Current estimates show Central Yup’ik, which is spoken across a large swath of Western Alaska, has the most robust base of fluent speakers at about 10,000 people.
Other languages are in a dire predicament, including many of the Athabaskan languages. Gwich’in and Koyukon have fewer than 300 each. Tanacross has 50 fluent speakers. About 25 speak Tanana, and there are languages with fewer than 10 fluent speakers, including Upper Tanana.
The Tlingit language of the Southeast has an estimated 50 or 60 fluent speakers.
Clearly, not enough has been done to preserve Alaska Native languages. So what should be done?
The Alaska Native Language Preservation Advisory Council report says a major problem is that many people do not know what resources are available to learn Alaska Native languages.
In recent years, technology has greatly increased the ability of people to learn an Alaska Native language. For instance, Chelsea Qaggun Zibell, a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, recently created a website to teach basic Inupiaq. The Doyon Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Doyon, Limited, is building out 280 courses of online language instruction for the nine languages spoken in the Doyon region, which encompasses Interior Alaska. The Doyon Foundation started this project in 2016.
More online learning programs will help preserve languages, but they won’t be the be-all end-all solution to language preservation, as many parts of Alaska still lack internet access.
Among the Alaska Native Language Preservation Advisory Council’s recommendations is creating charter schools that offer language immersion programs for children, and other language immersion programs for adults.
Alaska Native languages are an important component of Alaska’s culture and history. Preservation, restoration and revitalization of these languages is a challenging, yet worthy goal for Alaskans.
Alaska Legislators should explore some of the proposals in this report to learn what is feasible, and how the state can help these languages flourish.