Jeff Short on Preserving Native Language

Juneau, AK (KINY) - School Board Member, Jeff Short, talks about the importance of Native Language programs.

Alaskan Native languages have reportedly been on the decline, with some surveys even saying that there may be a complete loss of all Native language speakers by the end of the century. Several schools in Southeast Alaska offer programs to maintain that culture, but there is still a lot of room to improve and grow.

Jeff Short with the Juneau School Board talked about Native Language programs from the perspective of the Board in a recent interview. He fears losing a central component of Alaskan culture.

“The biggest worry is that so many of these languages are at risk of going extinct and and so if we're going to save them we need to take pretty strenuous action now.”

Juneau's efforts holds a significance to keep these languages alive in the region.

“At the School Board level it's been brought up that the Juneau School District in particular has a key role to play. Most of the remaining fluent speakers of Tlingit are either in or near Juneau and those are the people who are going to keep the language alive if it’s going to stay alive.”  

“By incorporating them into the school district with our Native Language and Native Instruction programs, that offers us both unique opportunities and primary responsibilities to help keep the language vibrant. We’re pretty concerned with finding ways to do that.”

Short proposed putting together a group with the goal of language preservation.

“One way that was coming to the surface is that I suggested creating a task force that would include the School District, the Central Council, Goldbelt, Sealaska, and other people of interest to try and find a way to make sure we’re promoting the Tlingit language and doing all we can to keep it vibrant.”

Short said that there is certainly room to grow.

“There’s been very noteworthy success; we have our Tlingit Language and Culture Program in the School District and that's got a lot of students engaged more in the Tlingit language, but there’s also a lot of room for improvement. I’m very interested in exploring ways to bolster that success and finding different things that we can do that will help ensure it.”

One of the biggest hurdles to these programs is the funding needed to keep them going and improve them.

“Funding is the biggest problem, more so than the method. The most effective method that has been well-known for language learning is to have a fluent speaker speak only, in this case, Tlingit to babies for a significant part of the day every day for their first few years of life. If you do that, then they become completely bilingual if the other parent or parents speak English at the same time. They’ll just become flawless between the two languages.”

“That’s where I would ultimately like to get, but to get there is going to require substantial resources, more than we have now.”

To help maintain and improve these programs, Short hopes the Legislature will keep them in mind.

“I hope that the Legislature will include these considerations when they’re thinking about funding for schools in Alaska and continue to support and hopefully increase that support. We’ve had flat funding for the last few years, but we’ve steadily had inflation eating away at how far those dollars stretch.”

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