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National Science Foundation Extends Grant for UAS Tlingit Language Revitalization Project

Juneau, AK

The University of Alaska Southeast is in line for a second National Science Foundation grant to help preserve Alaska Native Languages.  The $450,000 grant continues a five year project that began with a $360,000 grant in 2007. The NSF “Documenting Endangered Languages” initiative includes the recording and documentation of spontaneous Tlingit conversation, bilingual annotation of the recordings and the archiving of hundreds of audio tapes of Tlingit oratory, narratives, and celebrations.

UAS Research Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages, Alice Taff, wrote the grant and initiated the use of software that enables researchers to annotate Tlingit sound waves with English translations.  “This is a record of contemporary Tlingits talking to each other in real conversation,” said Taff.

Taff demonstrated the program at a recent Cultural Infusion Meeting on the UAS campus. A video plays on Taff’s laptop computer screen. It is of an elder remembering his father’s anger at his teachers after they hit the back of his hands for speaking then-forbidden Tlingit in the public school. Underneath the video are two bars. One is the audio wave in Tlingit. Under the wave is the written English translation.

The project is part of a world-wide effort to revitalize and sustain languages that are falling into disuse.

Part of the grant is also going to the cataloging of UAS faculty and renowned Tlingit history authors Nora and Richard Dauenhauer’s collection of 400 Tlingit tapes recorded over 40 years. Nora has been working with computer savvy young people. They input descriptive information about the tapes as dictated by Nora and then transfer the tapes to CD.

As a spin-off from these NSF-funded projects and with the help of another grant from EPscor (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), UAS student Amanda Bremner of Yakutat videotaped Tlingit elders describing the impacts of climate change on subsistence “This project has laid the ground work for me to truly understand the Tlingit language,” said Bremner.  “I have noticed my ear is better tuned for hearing specific sounds and words.  I have improved drastically in my Tlingit transcriptions. It has also given me vital linguistic experience by allowing me to learn first hand how to break down sentences while translating into English.”

Bremner’s experience is meeting one of the key goals of the NSF grant. “There are forms of grammar that never come up unless they are in dialogue,” said UA President’s Professor of Alaska Native Languages and Culture Richard Dauenhauer, “This (recording dialogue) shows the most common grammatical patterns.”

There is a strong regional interest in Tlingit language revitalization. A recent one-credit class put on by SealaskaHeritage Institute drew more than 30 students.   Eight UAS undergraduates, including Bremner, are now teaching Tlingit in Southeast public schools in Yakutat, Juneau, Klukwan and Sitka.

Press Release Contact

Alice Taff
Research Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages
907 796-6415
Richard Dauenhauer
Professor of Native Languages and Culture
907 796-6415