Imagine for a moment that there are only six people left in all the world with whom you can converse with -- that your homeland had been overwhelmed with another language, used to oppress you. 

That’s the relationship St. Paul Island has had with English. Elders say they were punished in school for speaking their language, Unangam Tunuu – the same elders who survived harsh treatment by the U.S. Government, who exploited their labor to harvest seals for the fur trade.  

As the number of fluent speakers on the island dwindled, there were fears the language would die with them. But at the St. Paul Island school, children are speaking Unangam Tunuu.

Usually there are no second chances for dying languages, but St. Paul Island has had success with the “Where Are Your Keys?” program, which emphasizes conversation over memorizing words. It also incorporates American Sign Language.  

The program was developed by Evan Gardner, an Oregon man, with a passion for saving endangered languages.

Several Alaska Native communities have embraced his techniques – and St. Paul Island was one of the first.

Another key to its success: partnerships created between elders and teenagers, who were hired by the tribal government to learn their language and then to teach it.

In this episode of Frontiers, we take a look at how a small group of dedicated people on St. Paul Island sparked a language revolution. Here are some of this week’s highlights.

  • People of the Seals: Greg Fratis, an elder fluent in Unagam Tunuu, explains how the history of the seals and the people of St. Paul Island go hand in hand.
  • Making Conversation: Go on a “language hunt” with Teresa Baker and Linnae Kosloff, two young women who teach Unagam Tunuu in the schools. They started learning when they were teenagers, working with elders to record conversations and turn them into lessons for the classroom.
  • Voices of Tomorrow: The nuts and bolts of how a language is rescued from the brink of extinction through a lot of hard work, dedication, and a whole lot of love.

 

Special thanks to everyone on St. Paul Island who shared their passion for their language and culture with Frontiers, especially Greg Fratis, Zee Melovidov, Aquilina Lestenkof and her young apprentices, Teresa Baker and Linnae Kosloff.

Apologies, if we “killed some fairies,” a term used in the “Where are Your Keys?” program – to remind teachers not to do too much explaining and translating during a lesson -- to encourage children to use their natural instincts to absorb the language, a magical process that works – if you don’t kill the fairies.  

Although we had to do some translating and explaining to put this show together, we tried hard to preserve some of the magic we experienced on St. Paul Island. A word of warning: you just might learn a little Unagam Tunuu in the course of watching this show! Aang (OK. I’ll kill one fairy. Aang means “yes,” as well as “hello.”).

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