Linguists say you can usually gauge the strength of a language by the number of children who speak it. For Alaska Native languages, that number continues to drop. In fact, the number fluent speakers for all Native languages have eroded over the last 40 years.

In this episode of Frontiers, we look at efforts to save endangered languages. There are some signs of hope. Here are some of the highlights.

  • Cugtun: Rebirth of a language: We take you to Mekoryuk, a small community on Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea – the home of the Cup’ig language, or Cugtun. There are only about 200 fluent Cup’ig speakers in the world today – and almost all of them are above the age of 50. The school, though, is fighting to reverse that trend.
  • Voices of hope: One sign a language is in trouble is when it’s no longer spoken at home. From working with the school -- to helping to create a Cup’ig dictionary and a map of local place names -- Muriel and Howard Amos have made it their life’s work to keep their Native language alive. Why they believe a big part of their culture would be lost if the Cup’ig language disappears.
  • Reversing language loss: Our featured guests, Ethan Petticrew and Barbara Amos, have a powerful message to share -- that language immersion programs can rescue struggling Native languages, even in Anchorage. Petticrew is director of the Cook Inlet Native Head Start program. Amos teaches a Yup’ik immersion class for preschoolers. Eleven of her students will move on this fall to the Anchorage School District’s first Yup’ik immersion program at College Gate elementary.

As someone who has watched efforts to revitalize Alaska Native languages since the 1980s, I’ve heard many of the arguments against it – that if the language is going to die anyway, why not let it go and put the emphasis on English so that kids would be better off in the long run.  

But a number of communities and school districts have pushed back, literally swimming upstream against the currents of change. And we should be glad they did.

A lot of the research today shows that children thrive when they learn to speak their Native language – that it helps them with brain development -- and most important of all, build a strong cultural identity.

I hope you enjoy this week’s adventure in Alaska Native languages because it truly is an amazing journey.

In Alaska, Native language proponents are poised to change the course of history – to reverse the cycle of extinction that has claimed many of the world’s indigenous languages.

Time is still of the essence, but if Alaska Native languages survive into the next century, some of the efforts you’ll see here on this very episode of Frontiers will have made the difference.

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