One principle needs to be kept firmly in mind when teaching language in the classroom: the function of language is communication. This means that language should seldom be abstracted from real communicative contexts. English should not be taught apart from its practical value and without being aware that different kinds of English are necessary in different situations. The same is true of teaching an Athabaskan language. Real communicative situations should be introduced into the classroom whenever possible.
Standard English instruction
Teachers sometimes make the mistake of being too insistent on their pupils using standard English in all situations, reasoning that because children need to know it, they must practice it constantly and eradicate whatever other dialect they speak. While it is true that they need the knowledge and the practice, it is wrong to assume that constant correction will teach them standard English; in fact, it may produce the opposite effect. There are at least two reasons for this. First, such an approach can make a student terribly self-conscious about using standard English and, as a result, less likely to try using it. Second, the corrective approach may be counterproductive because it abstracts language from its true function—communication. Interrupting functional communication to point out grammatical "errors" enhances neither the communication nor the speaker's perception of the standard language.
It is unrealistic to expect students (or anyone else) to use standard English in all situations. Trying to make students speak standard English to their parents and other members of their community can alienate the school from the community and the young people from their own society (if they try to comply) or from mainstream society (if they realize the implications of the school's demands and rebel). It is of prime importance that the school be part of the community it serves and not perceived merely as an institution imposed from outside by an alien, dominant culture.
What, then, should the teacher's approach to standard English be? We are not suggesting that it should be neglected. In a more perfect world, perhaps the variety of language a person used would not matter; but in our world as it is, people who wish to succeed in American education, business, and politics must have good command of the standard or general American English dialect, at least in its written form. While it is not the school's duty to convince students that these are the only successes worth aiming for, it is the school's goal to prepare them for such a future if they wish it. It is apparent, then, that standard English must be taught by some means. The approach we suggest is the establishment of bidialectalism.
Different dialects need not be conflicting or mutually exclusive. All of us use different styles of speech in different settings—at home with our families, in our communities, at work with our colleagues, and in formal institutional settings. Especially for those whose families speak a nonstandard dialect, this style-switching may amount to dialect-switching. Even people who grow up speaking standard English at home often learn to switch into nonstandard dialects in order to be more easily accepted by playmates, co-workers, and so on. Similarly, it is reasonable to expect that Athabaskan students can use different styles of speech in different contexts.
With this attitude in mind, it is possible to teach students standard English in a nonconfrontational manner. They can learn the dialect without having their every statement corrected. First of all, the teacher himself should provide a good, consistent model of standard English. Sometimes people who come to an Alaskan village are so charmed by the local variety of English that, consciously or unconsciously, they adopt it themselves. Indeed, someone who has grown up bidialectal may have a hard time not doing this. Remember, however, that you as the teacher are perhaps the best model available to your students and when in the classroom, always speak the language taught in the classroom. In addition, provide the students with many other examples of standard English, including well-written books and audiovisual materials that feature interesting and appropriate use of standard English. The language in these models must be simple enough for the students' level, but it should always be well-constructed.
This does not mean students should never be corrected. If you observe parents correcting their children's language, you can see how gentle and subtle such correction can be. If a child says, "Johnny falled me!" a parent is not likely to respond, "You should say, 'Johnny pushed me down.'" Instead, the parent will probably provide a model of the correct form that is also meaningful communication, such as, "Why did Johnny push you down?" or "Johnny, did you push her down?"
Rather than concentrating on the nonstandard form of the student's utterance, a teacher can incorporate the standard alternative into ongoing communication, providing a correction without making the student feel self-conscious. If the student says, "I never see it," the teacher can comment, "You didn't see it?" If the communicative situation permits digression, the teacher can point out the difference; for example, "People in this area say 'never' where most Americans say 'didn't'; 'never' means something a little different in standard English."
Remember the basic principle we stressed at the beginning of this chapter: language is used for communication. If you do not clearly understand what the student is saying to you, if you are not communicating, you should tell him or her this. If possible, students themselves should be encouraged to discuss situations where communication might be failing.
In written work, it should be carefully explained and specified what variety of English is to be used. No matter what variety of English a person speaks, unless he has read a good deal, he is likely to be unaware of the somewhat different requirements of written standard English. For example, there is probably no dialect of spoken American English where one cannot use the phrase "kind of" as in "it's kind of cold here." In written English, however, one should use the word "rather" to express the same idea. Teachers must be able to identify and explain points like this. The technical term which designates the variety of language used in a certain context is "register." Students should be introduced to the different registers necessary in the home, in spoken exchanges in the classroom, and in formal written work. Informal written work like fiction, verse, and personal letters, can be in the student's ordinary conversational register.
Letters can also be used as a way of helping the student become comfortable in standard English, especially since letter writing is the most important use most people will make of that variety of the language in their adult life. Students can write to "pen pals" in other parts of the country, to businesses and government agencies for information, to local or regional newspapers, and to their representatives in the state or national government. Again, in this approach language is being used in real, productive communication.
Emphasizing human diversity
It is important to make the point to students that there are not just two ways of life in the world, Native and mainstream American. Teachers should talk about other cultures and ways of life that differ from either of those. Introducing materials used in the schools of other ethnic groups is fascinating and also shows that people everywhere are struggling to cope with intercultural problems in innovative ways.
Students should not be made to feel that they have to give up being Athabaskan to be part of the modern world. They should realize that not all the technological innovations they see are products of the dominant society but, rather, are the result of human invention all over the world.
The diversity of language should also be discussed. In particular, it should be emphasized that English has many dialects and that anyone who speaks English speaks some dialect with quirks of its own. Audiovisual materials and books with samples of different varieties of English should be used. Teachers can explain that standard English is used so people of many different groups can communicate with each other easily. It must be admitted that the variety chosen as standard was chosen because it was the dialect of the dominant social and economic class; this is a usual process in the development of national languages and has occurred all over the world. It may be somehow unjust, but it is a fact of life.
We have said earlier that teachers should use instructional materials in good standard English. However, once students know that English has many varieties, there is no reason not to supplement standard-English materials with those in other dialects. They can even serve as the basis of discussion on those grounds. For example, the Yukon-Koyukuk School District has produced a series of "village biographies" that reproduce statements in the local variety of English. These books should not be avoided. They contain much valuable information, and using them demonstrates respect for the local culture and people.
We have not talked much about pronunciation in different dialects of English. In fact, differences in pronunciation, or different "accents," are considered interesting but unimportant by most English speakers. People with pronounced accents can succeed in standard-English-using institutions if their vocabulary and grammar are within the standard norm. For example, Henry Kissinger was our country's Secretary of State, even though his pronunciation was strongly influenced by German. We believe that Alaskan village teachers should not concern themselves much with the pronunciation patterns of their students, which are unlikely to interfere with spoken communication and which do not carry over at all in written communication. Nonstandard vocabulary and syntax, however, can interfere with understanding and carry over directly into writing, so these should be stressed in teaching standard English.
In summary, teachers should indeed be concerned with teaching their students standard English, but they should develop ways of doing this without trying to eradicate the students' first dialect. Much more needs to be known about local varieties of English before effective contrastive techniques can be developed. Until then, understanding the nature of linguistic diversity and discussing it honestly and nonjudgmentally in the classroom will go a long way toward enabling students to learn an alternative dialect while maintaining a positive attitude toward both their own speech and that of others.
Integrating Athabaskan studies into the curriculum
It is wrong to assume, as both teachers and community members sometimes do, that village schools must choose between teaching either Athabaskan or mainstream American subjects. One need not schedule all things Athabaskan during one time period and all other things during another. Instead, the entire curriculum should be integrated.
Many school groups have taken field trips to fish camp, gone berry picking, or participated in other subsistence activities. Most teachers have found such trips to be a wonderful opportunity to combine the knowledge of the two cultures. From mainstream culture might come principles of biological science, and from Athabaskan the knowledge of habitats, seasonal patterns, and animal behavior. Trips can also incorporate language lessons, teaching plant and animal names or the verbs that describe cutting, scaling, and scoring fish. People from the community are often more comfortable telling old stories and talking about the old days during such excursions than they are in the classroom.
Students' comprehension and retention is also improved when subject matter is presented in a hands-on situation. If there is one thing mainstream Americans remember from high school biology lab, it is dissecting frogs. In fish camp one has the opportunity for the same kind of active observation. When the fish are right there and are an important part of the community's daily life, it is relevant and interesting to talk about migration or explain how gills work. When people are out picking berries, botany and nutrition take on new meaning.
In the city it is easy to forget that subject areas like geography and biology are about real things. In a village, one is constantly aware of the significance of the natural environment. People need to know geography and biology to get the necessities of life. In such a setting it should be easy for teachers to make classroom studies directly relevant to the lives of the students.
These ideas apply not only to science but to other subject areas. When discussing literature, one should be able to compare European-American with Athabaskan literature, using some of the newly produced materials (see Suggested Reading) that make it accessible to English speakers in forms that express its real values. During physical education, students can play traditional Native games (the Eskimo-Indian Olympics and the Native Youth Olympics should provide ideas). In social studies, local history, social structure, and government can be important topics. As always, the school should be part of the community and not an alienating influence.
Athabaskan language instruction
Many village schools have some kind of instructional program in the local Athabaskan language. Although often called "bilingual education," at the present time such classes teach Athabaskan as a second language because there are only a very few communities in Alaska where children actually can converse fluently in an Athabaskan language. Such programs are usually conducted by a bilingual aide hired from the local community. Many of these aides have had little or no training in teaching methods or in Native-language literacy, and they may have little if any material for classroom use. They are often asked to design an instructional program entirely independently. Considering the lack of support they have had, many have done a remarkable job of teaching the language, but it is not fair to require them to work without help.
Some aides have had sound and helpful assistance. Sometimes this has come from an active and well-informed bilingual/bicultural coordinator at the district office. In other cases an especially interested local teacher has been a great help. The ideal situation is support from all levels. District personnel should include a coordinator qualified and assigned to design and implement bilingual programs throughout the district. Teachers in the schools should be willing to help design local curricula and work with aides. In addition, statewide agencies such as the Department of Education, the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, the Alaska Native Language Center, and other Rural Education units of the University should be called upon to contribute their expertise.
Cooperative efforts can be very effective and students can enjoy and learn from well-designed programs. It is important to realize, though, that schools alone cannot revive a language when it is passing out of use among younger generations.
The problem is that in most Alaskan Athabaskan areas, the native language is no longer the primary means of communication. In most villages, only people in late middle age and older use Athabaskan among themselves. Only if the native language is necessary in the community, will it revive. For example, one Mohawk community in Canada was able to revive their dying language when everyone in the community agreed to speak nothing but Mohawk to children and followed the rule strictly. In Alaskan villages, partly because of the longstanding policies of the schools, people have tended to speak English to children for several generations.
Language can still be part of the community's culture without being used in everyday conversation. In some places the native language is used in the church or at traditional ceremonies, especially in songs. Often an otherwise "dead" language survives as a literary language; for example, there was an active tradition of writing poetry in Latin as late as the eighteenth century. Therefore people should not "give up" teaching the local Athabaskan language, even if it is very unlikely that it will ever be anyone's first language again. It can still be a strong force for cultural Identity and pride. In southeastern Alaska, for example, few if any children speak Tlingit any more, but there are a number of popular groups in which schoolchildren learn traditional songs and dances from elders.
As an outside institution, the school cannot and should not try to force study of the native language on the community; the community must take the initiative and make the decisions. An overly enthusiastic teacher who constantly tries to get people to speak the local language may, in fact, be gravely insulting them. The teacher may be perceived as saying, "You people need me to tell you how to be good Athabaskans," taunting people with what they have lost after his own society has taken it away. Remember that it was primarily the schools that forced people to give up their native languages in the first place.
An overly enthusiastic teacher can also hurt students by telling them that if they lose their language they will lose their culture, too. First of all, such a statement is wrong. Culture is always changing, and its changes may include the adoption of different languages as well as technology and subsistence patterns. Second, such a statement implies that students (very few of whom speak Athabaskan) have already lost their culture and are not "real" Athabaskans. A student who gets this message can only wonder, "If I'm not Athabaskan and I'm not White, am I nothing at all?"
Rather than trying to shape the outlook and future of a community, a teacher should be sensitive to the needs and desires of the community and act to serve them. Rather than self-righteously trying to impose his own values, a teacher should cooperate with the rest of the community to give students the skills to be competent, capable, and productive members of both local and wider societies.
Some teachers may go to the other extreme and discourage teaching Athabaskan languages in the belief that Athabaskan studies take time away from more "important" subjects and interfere with learning standard English. Again, teachers must be sensitive to what the community wants in the curriculum. Furthermore, learning one language definitely does not interfere with learning another. Learning Athabaskan as a second language is no more detrimental than learning French or Spanish as a second language.
As far as taking time away from teaching things needed for survival in the modern world, Athabaskan culture is part of the modern world. It has not been eliminated yet and pessimism about its continuation is neither productive nor justified. Athabaskan people are going to be around for a long time and their culture, despite its changing nature, will continue in some form. Besides, as pointed out above, Athabaskan studies can often be integrated into more general subject areas, where their immediate relevance will catch students' attention and hold it.
Teaching literacy in Athabaskan
In general, we believe that reading ability in an Athabaskan language is not something that should be emphasized in the early stages of an instructional program. This is based on the fact that so few Athabaskan children speak anything but English. Before a child learns to write Athabaskan (or indeed any other language), he or she should first command the language's sound system and have some basic conversational skills.
On the other hand, writing should not be completely avoided nor should children be prevented from seeing Athabaskan written. If a teacher trained in literacy is available, writing can and should be introduced in accordance with the interest and ability of the child. Children who want to know how to spell something should be shown.
A child should be able to say a word or phrase before seeing it in writing. For example, if a child asks how to write the word for "raven," you should ask him or her how to say it in the local language and write it after receiving an answer. If the student does not know the word, teach it orally first and then write it down when it is mastered.
Some bilingual teachers in Alaska have observed that it is easy to teach writing. Students who can already write English pick it up quickly. The problem is that students cannot remember the words they learn merely by seeing and writing them. We cannot emphasize too strongly that speaking ability and the use of words in context should be primary and literacy secondary.
Where students already speak the language, and in adult education programs, literacy can be taught earlier in the program, just as English literacy is taught. The modern writing systems of Alaskan Athabaskan languages have all been designed to resemble the writing system of English in many ways and all use the ordinary Roman alphabet with a few necessary modifications.
One source of difficulty is that because Athabaskan languages have more consonant sounds than English does, combinations of letters (digraphs with two characters, trigraphs with three) have to be used to represent some sounds. Of course, English has such conventions too in combinations like th, ch, sh, ng. Athabaskan spelling systems add a few more, some of them quite long, like tth' (a sound made with the tongue between the teeth and followed by a glottal "pop").
At the end of this book are tables of the writing systems or orthographies for all the Athabaskan languages of Alaska. An explanation of some of the basic principles of Athabaskan orthographies and sound systems introduces the tables.