Guest blog by Liz Liske, Yellowknives Dene First Nation member, descendant of the Tatsǫ́t’ıné (Copper) people that surround Great Slave Lake from Chief Drygeese Territory, Somba K’e also known as Yellowknife, NT in the Akaitcho Region. Grand-daughter of Elise and Antoine Liske from Akaitcho Region; of Adele and George Hardisty from Dehcho Region. Daughter of Ethel and Philip Liske.
Dene languages come from the land, so it’s appropriate to associate a language learning journey with taking a trip out on the land. There will be good and bad challenges, so you need to be well prepared to face all the outdoor elements. You need nourishment. You need shelter. You need to be safe. The conditions will sometimes be unpredictable and that’s why preparation is key. Technically you would plan your language learning, too; but the language learning journey is hard to plan for when the development, access and understanding of learning Dene languages (Dene) is still in the works for many communities.
As learning to speak Dene is like a journey, it can be hard to navigate if you are not aware of a few basic teachings:
- A non-speaker is like a baby
- Learning Dene is an emotional process
- Learning Dene is a long journey
I learned that non-speakers are like babies. For the first year of a baby’s life, they don’t speak. What are they doing? They are making sounds and listening to the world around them. English is a dominant language. My first advice would be to change your environment. Listen to Dene any chance you get. The radio. Recordings. Sitting around elders. Anything. You must be around it as much as possible. Let Dene dominate the world around you and immerse yourself into all the sounds and story-telling -- understanding it doesn’t matter, just yet. Let Dene sounds be present in your everyday life. Welcome it in, let it stay for a while and enjoy the baby phase.
I learned that your language journey will be an emotional process. I did not learn Dene as a child. My Mother Tongue was not passed down to me. My parents both went to residential school and this has greatly impacted us, to say the least. The emotions that are attached to colonial contact and residential school seep into the language learning journey in more ways than one. It’s important that you are aware and try your best to prepare for how taxing this can be on you as a whole. However, in contrast, it has contributed to my healing and does wonders for wellness, too. Learning Dene is medicine.
I learned that this journey never ends. There are multitudes of ways in which you can learn Dene. Indigenous governments, settler governments, non-profits and businesses alike are all developing ways to either reclaim or revitalize Dene languages. I have attempted to do one-on-one learning and completed an in-class course. I have heard about full immersion but those programs come with their own challenges. Funding is only one of them. During my one-on-one learning, I chose my spouse as my mentor and, for me, that didn’t work. Not all speakers are teachers which is something else I learned. In short, learning your language will teach you patience. You have to be patient with yourself and those you encounter on this journey. It would be helpful to remember you all have a common goal and that is to create speakers!
These come from my own learnings and teachings. I am not an expert in learning Dene; however I do believe in sharing knowledge and experiences. Dene people are well known for being story-tellers and this is mine. I hope I get many chances to keep telling it because that is one way to keep my journey alive.
I took an Indigenous Language Revitalization course and my best memory is one class where our two instructors read aloud a story in Dene. They would read a sentence or two and I was able to understand at least one word. I was able to do this through the whole story. My classmates were amazed. I was amazed. I told this story to two other educators I know and they said that’s my blood memory. Speaking Dene lives within me. Once I heard that, I knew I was all in! I spent a lot of time with my grandparents when I was young and was raised around the language so something must have stuck.
It’s my hope that this finds you and provides either guidance you didn’t know you needed, or gives an energy boost to continue your journey. Mahsi.