Stories saving language: notes on learning & teaching Okanagan

I was presenting in Kelowna, B.C. on Friday and met a guy who’s saving a language. Tyler E. works for an Okanagan school district and is a speaker of the indigenous language Okanagan (spoken in southern B.C. and northern Washington State). Tyler this year has a full-time Oakanagan language class and his mission, basically, is to save Okanagan, of which there are few adult speakers left.

Okanagan– of which I got to learn a few words on Friday!– was largely made extinct by the racist genocide perpetrated by the Canadian government. It is written using English letters, with a few add-ons for the non-English sounds (like Vietnamese). Tyler has been majorly struggling with how to make the teaching work but he feels like he’s hit a pedagogical jackpot with comprehensible input.

I got to chat and acquire some Okanagan from Tyler after the workshop and interesting were some of the things Tyler said about what the native Elders– who have input into local education– have to say about what they want to see in Okanagan language teaching.

A) they want all Okanagan teaching to be done with stories. This is Native tradition and these people have been here for literally 13,000 years and they know what works for them.

B) they do not want the language taught via the grammar grind. There are still elders and many parents who had English (and French) literally beaten into them in residential schools (whose aim was “to take the Indian out of the child”) and for them grammar teaching basically feels colonialist. Abstract rules and examples are like the white man’s law: detached from local context, and used to enforce misery. As Thomas Pynchon’s narrator remarks, “it is not the name, but the act of naming” that enforces power. The Okanagan have told stories to their kids for 12,870 years longer than Canada has existed, they saw an alien language imposed on them in an alien way, and they are smarter than the white man’s Latinist-grammarian descendent teachers in knowing that stories– built on what kids know and experience– and not rules and tables, are the real teachers.

C) they want the language to feel alive to the kids. The TPRS practice of using bizarre names and details and situations works fine for these folk. They are not tied to any “cultural” agenda. They do not feel that they must be importing anything foreign into their kids lives, and because they live in two worlds– the Native and the modern– TPRS’ odd juxtapositions seem natural to them. Most important: kids like language. Least important: formal grammatical learning. Tyler tells me that traditional Native stories will work well with TPRS and he’ll be able to throw modern elements in there as well.

Native stories– and almost all traditional narratives, like folk tales, old epics etc– are full of the so-called “bizarre” stuff for which TPRS is sometimes– inaccurately– mocked. I mean, pick your epic, and you’ll find talking snakes offering women apples, clever crows stealing babies, Gods disguised as people…TPRS stories are a return to tradition, not a departure.  Magic realism, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez noted, is realistic because it’s magical.

After the workshop ended, we spent some time with Tyler practising teaching me by circling two parallel sentences– “the boy wants to swim” and “the girl wants to hunt.”

Here is how Okanagan is written:

in̓x̌ást iʔ pix̌m

x̌ast= like to

Some things I noticed from acquiring a bit of Okanagan:

A) it’s HARD to learn a new language if the teacher goes too fast. As soon as Tyler went too fast, I was lost. Ben Slavic’s insistence that the most important skill in T.P.R.S. is going s-l-o-w-l-y is 100% correct.

B) It’s EASY to pick up some new words if sentences are circled slowly.

C) it FEELS GOOD to “get it.”

D) I stopped noticing the “weird characters” after awhile. In the example above, the wiggly thing above the X is something like a “shh-w” sound. Once I got the meaning, that stuff just faded into the background.

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