Saving Our Language

Native languages in Alaska are in danger of disappearing. These kids are on a mission to keep theirs alive.

Katie Basile Photography

Students from Bethel, Alaska, wear the traditional clothing of their tribe.

Like most fourth-graders, Kenuel Latham learns math, science, and reading in school. But his music class is probably not what you’d expect. Kenuel and his classmates sing in a language most Americans don’t understand. They also wave fans made of feathers and wear beaded headdresses.

“Sometimes we make drums or learn new dances,” says Kenuel. “It’s really fun.”

But this class isn’t just for fun. It’s part of an effort to save a dying language. Students at Kenuel’s school in Bethel, Alaska, are taught in Yup’ik. That’s the language that was spoken by their ancestors.

Yup’ik is one of 20 Native Alaskan languages in danger of disappearing within the next 100 years. The students at Kenuel’s school are working to keep that from happening.

“The best way to save a language is to teach the young people,” says Roy Mitchell. He’s an expert on Alaska’s languages.

Like most fourth-graders, Kenuel Latham learns math, science, and reading in school. But his music class is probably not what you’d expect. Kenuel and his classmates sing in a language most Americans don’t understand. They also wave fans made of feathers. They wear beaded headdresses.

“Sometimes we make drums or learn new dances,” says Kenuel. “It’s really fun.”

But this class isn’t just for fun. It’s part of an effort to save a dying language. Kenuel goes to school in Bethel, Alaska. Students there are taught in Yup’ik. That’s the language that was spoken by their ancestors.

There are 20 Native Alaskan languages in danger of disappearing. Yup’ik is one of them. That could happen within the next 100 years. The students at Kenuel’s school want to stop that from happening.

 “The best way to save a language is to teach the young people,” says Roy Mitchell. He’s an expert on Alaska’s languages.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Dying Words

There was a time when everyone in the area that is now Alaska spoke a language other than English. In the late 1700s, the region was home to about 80,000 people. More than 25 languages were spoken among the groups. That changed when the United States purchased the Alaska territory from Russia in 1867. Americans moved to Alaska and made English the main language. Native teachers and students were not allowed to speak their own languages in schools.

“Students were punished if they used a Native language,” explains Mitchell. “They were made to stand in corners, and their mouths were washed out with soap.”

Alaska wasn’t the only place where this happened. In the late 19th century, the U.S. government forced Native American kids across the country to speak only English.

As generations passed, fewer Native Alaskans learned the languages of their ancestors. Some of the languages disappeared. When the last person to speak a language dies, the language dies with them. This is much like animals that go extinct when the last of their species dies. When a language is lost, the history of a community often vanishes with it.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Native American Languages Act. The law encouraged Native Americans to once again use their own languages proudly. It also said that schools were no longer allowed to ban kids from speaking native languages.

Everyone in the area that is now Alaska used to speak a language other than English. In the late 1700s, about 80,000 people lived there. They spoke more than 25 languages. That changed in 1867. The United States bought the Alaska territory from Russia. Americans moved to Alaska. They made English the main language. Native teachers and students were not allowed to speak their own languages in schools.

“Students were punished if they used a Native language,” explains Mitchell. “They were made to stand in corners, and their mouths were washed out with soap.”

Alaska wasn’t the only place where this happened. In the late 19th century, the U.S. government forced Native American kids across the country to speak only English.

Generations passed. Fewer Native Alaskans learned the languages of their ancestors. Some of the languages disappeared. When the last person to speak a language dies, the language dies with them. This is much like animals that go extinct when the last of their species dies. When a language is lost, the history of a community often vanishes with it.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Native American Languages Act. The law said Native Americans should use their own languages proudly. It also said that schools were no longer allowed to ban kids from speaking native languages. 

Katie Basile Photography 

Students at the school learn the traditional dances (top left), music (top right), and language (bottom) of their ancestors.

Learning the Language

This law paved the way for a new school to open its doors in Bethel in 1995. It was named after its founder, Ayaprun Jones. Ayaprun Elitnaurvik (ah-yuhp-ruhn lit-now-vik) was the first school in Alaska to teach students in both Yup’ik and English. At the time, most kids in Bethel understood very little Yup’ik.

“Students were learning little bits of language here and there,” says Jones. “But Yup’ik wasn’t being taught for students to learn how to communicate.”

Students at the school are taught only in Yup’ik from kindergarten through third grade. No English is spoken in class. By the time students reach fifth grade, half their classes are taught in English and the other half in Yup’ik.

But the kids are learning more than just a language. Fifth- and sixth-graders take a class called “The Ways of Living.” They are taught many of the skills their ancestors once used to survive in southwestern Alaska. They learn how to sew mittens, ice fish, hunt, and more.

“The kids need to say ‘I’m proud to be Yup’ik,’” says Jones. “You don’t get pride when you don’t speak your language or practice your culture.”

This law paved the way for a new school to open its doors in Bethel in 1995. It was named after its founder, Ayaprun Jones. Ayaprun Elitnaurvik (ah-yuhp-ruhn lit-now-vik) was the first school in Alaska to teach students in both Yup’ik and English. At the time, most kids in Bethel understood very little Yup’ik.

“Students were learning little bits of language here and there,” says Jones. “But Yup’ik wasn’t being taught for students to learn how to communicate.”

Students at the school are taught only in Yup’ik from kindergarten through third grade. No English is spoken in class. By the time students reach fifth grade, half their classes are taught in English. The other half are taught in Yup’ik.

But the kids are learning more than just a language. Fifth- and sixth-graders take a class called “The Ways of Living.” They are taught many of the skills their ancestors once used to survive in southwestern Alaska. They learn how to sew mittens, ice fish, hunt, and more.

“The kids need to say ‘I’m proud to be Yup’ik,’ ” says Jones. “You don’t get pride when you don’t speak your language or practice your culture.”

Katie Basile Photography

Hope for the Future

Despite the school’s efforts, there’s still a long way to go. Experts estimate that less than 4 percent of Alaskans speak an indigenous language. Because so few native speakers are left, Alaska Governor Bill Walker declared a language emergency in the state. He issued an order that calls for all Alaskan public schools to introduce native languages to students.

Jones says teaching the languages to a new generation of Alaskans is the key to solving the problem.

“They are the ones who will be holding on to our culture when we are gone,” says Jones. “They are the future.”

Despite the school’s efforts, there’s still a long way to go. Experts say that less than 4 percent of Alaskans speak an indigenous language. Very few native speakers are left. So Alaska Governor Bill Walker declared a language emergency in the state. He issued an order to all Alaskan public schools. The order told schools to introduce native languages to students.

Jones says teaching the languages to a new generation of Alaskans is the key to solving the problem.

“They are the ones who will be holding on to our culture when we are gone,” says Jones. “They are the future.”

1. How is Ayaprun Elitnaurvik similar to and different from other schools in the U.S.?

2. What is the main idea of the section “Dying Words”?

3. How does a language die out? What happens as a result?

4. What text structure does the article mostly follow? How do you know?

1. How is Ayaprun Elitnaurvik similar to and different from other schools in the U.S.?

2. What is the main idea of the section “Dying Words”?

3. How does a language die out? What happens as a result?

4. What text structure does the article mostly follow? How do you know?

Close-Reading Questions

Click the Google Quiz button below to share these Close-Reading Questions with your class.

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