Anchorage is not a place that comes to mind when you think of the Yup’ik language-- or Yugtun.

You can hear Yugtun spoken in Southwest Alaska in places like Bethel, Quinhagak, Napaskiak and Kwethluk. But the language also has a foothold in an innovative Anchorage preschool program, run by Cook Inlet Native Head Start, which has two campuses-- one at Chugach Square on Tudor Road and another at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

The Heritage Center houses a Yup’ik immersion program in which the children are immersed in Yup’ik throughout the whole school day with very little English spoken.

The children, who range in age from 3 to 5-years-old, seem to have no problem absorbing the language. The deep, back-in-the-throat guttural sounds of Yup’ik sound perfectly natural coming from these children, as they sing songs in Yugtun or recite the alphabet.

Some of the parents, including Elizabeth Hancock, believe it’s improved the behavior of their children.

“It’s making him a better person because he’s learning traditional values,” Hancock says of her rambunctious preschooler.

Hancock, who is of mixed Inupiat and Siberian Yupik heritage, grew up in Anchorage and did not learn to speak either language. Although both are completely different from Yup’ik, she’s glad her son is learning a Native language.

“He’s learning how to be a human being-- a human being that’s respectful, kind and caring and willing to learn,” Hancock said.

Barbara Amos, the lead teacher for the program, says it’s no coincidence.

“The rules and the ways of thinking-- and the ways to behave-- are embedded in the language,” she said.

“It’s beautiful! It’s beautiful!” Amos exclaims.

Throughout the day, Amos engages the children in Yup’ik conversation and is surprised at how quickly those children begin to understand her. But, she says she gets really excited when she hears children talk with each other in Yugtun-- even argue in the language or scold each other if they slip up and speak English.

But Amos loves it when the children spontaneously run up to her and say, “Kenkamken,” Yugtun for “I love you.”

“I want the students to enjoy coming to school so they can embrace education,” Amos said. 

As for her own childhood, Amos says she remembers asking her mother why she didn’t speak to her in her Native language.

“A tear came down her eye,” Amos recalls, almost talking in a whisper. “'I don’t want your teachers to slap you for speaking your language,' and I didn’t have anything to say.”

Most of the children in Amos’ classroom speak better Yugtun than their parents, which is in many ways a historic reversal of a pattern of language loss that began just one or two generations ago.

Typically, the cycle begins when children comprehend what their parents say-- but respond only in English. Then, when they become parents, they speak to their children in English only. The children may understand a few words of their native tongue, but in many cases, they speak neither language very well.

So far, children in the immersion program seem to have suffered no loss in their English speaking skills. In fact, some parents say they seem better able to express themselves overall.  

Eleven of the students in the pre-school program will make history this fall when they will attend the Anchorage School District’s first Yup’ik immersion program at College Gate Elementary School.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center, one of the partners in the Cook Inlet Native Head Start program, says this next step is unprecedented for Anchorage. The Heritage Center has focused on training Native language teachers and offering classes to adults who want to reconnect with their heritage.

“This is a game changer for us,” said Steve Blanchette, vice president of communications for the Heritage Center. “We’re going to see the fruits of this labor in about four or five years from now. We’re going to be seeing young speakers in the Anchorage area that we haven’t ever developed.”

Another organization, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, recently opened the Clare Swan Early Head Start program, which offers a Yup’ik language immersion class for infants who will then be able to continue on at the immersion preschool.

The Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council counts about 20 Native languages in Alaska and says all of them have lost fluent speakers over the last 40 years. Today, most of those remaining fluent speakers are elderly.

Linguists say the best predictor of a language’s survival is the number of children who speak it fluently. The Cook Inlet Native Head Start believes its Yup’ik immersion program may help towards that end.

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