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Technology improves Inupiaq language instruction

May 17th, 2013 | Elise Patkotak Print this article   Email this article  

According to Robert Janes, a scholar of museum studies who works in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Northern Canada, "It has been estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 languages once existed simultaneously in the world. Today only about 6,000 languages survive, and only about half of these are being learned by children. As a result, about half of those languages are likely becoming extinct within the next century. Of the 175 aboriginal languages in the US, for example, 55 of them are spoken by fewer than 10 individuals. Only Navajo is spoken by more than one hundred thousand people."

Tragically, loss of language and loss of culture go hand in hand. Because Ilisagvik College was created by the Indigenous people of the North Slope, its staff is acutely aware of how important the Inupiaq language is and how critical it is that future generations are fluent speakers. The language contains not only words that describe Arctic conditions and the Iñupiat lifestyle as no English words can, it also holds the spirit and truths of the culture.

Anna Edwardson is the new Inupiaq Studies Coordinator. Along with Jerica Aamodt, she is working to make Inupiaq accessible to all students by making the words and sounds familiar on a daily basis. They've begun this effort by digitizing existing written files on the language so that it will be available far into the future. Dr. Edna MacLean believes that by using audio files uploaded to the platform used by Ilisagvik for distance delivery, students will be able to hear the words pronounced by a fluent Inupiaq speaker. It will be easier for these students to actually speak the language because it will allow them to study at their own pace and on their own time. They can play any word or phrase as often as needed to become comfortable pronouncing it themselves.

Edwardson describes the process she uses this way. "From our Distance Education Department I learned how to use iSpring software to create animated PowerPoint files to upload onto MyCampus. After playing around with the program a bit and getting input from the students on what would help them learn best, we decided to break up the audio file into single words that a student can play over and over. Using free software I downloaded online, I began to cut the raw audio files that Dr. MacLean would send me via email. From there I simply typed up the word and definition and imported the audio into PowerPoint. In class Dr. MacLean incorporated dialogues, which were also recorded and turned into the PowerPoint presentations with clickable audio buttons. These resources are essentially digital flash cards that help with vocabulary building and a guide to pronunciation."

Dr. MacLean is teaching Inupiaq from an Anchorage location. This process of audio files allows students to listen again and again to pronunciation and dialog from class so as to hone their skills in correctly sounding out the words even when she is not available to them. This process will also help students in villages by giving them the same advantage of hearing the words over and over. It is a tremendous support for students as it allows them continuous access to the expertise of their teachers.

Myrna Loy Sarren, one of 38 students taking Inupiaq Studies classes this semester, and who is graduating with an AA in General Studies this semester, says "The resources that are currently being used in our Iñupiaq class are very helpful. The recorded sentences that are posted on MyCampus are available to us at any time. Also, the C-Live is excellent to use when we are in a teleconference setting with the teacher. We can visually see what she is teaching us."

According to Edwardson, "This is a great opportunity for instructors who will teach in person in Barrow as well as for instructors teaching via distance delivery because it will give our village students a resource that they can utilize even if they are not able to communicate with the instructor in person during office hours. I am in the process of creating instructions and templates so that other instructors in the Inupiaq Studies Department can use and begin implementing these digital resources in their classroom. Currently, Etta Fournier is creating dialogues to be recorded and put into this format so that the students in the Conversational Inupiaq courses can have access to voice recordings of classroom materials."

On January 21, 2008, Eyak speaker Marie Smith of Cordova died. With her died her language, preserved now only in books and tapes. Ilisagvik College is vitally aware of how critical their efforts to preserve the Iñupiaq language are. College president Pearl Brower, herself a student in learning her Native language said, "Here at Ilisagvik we are determined to preserve our language not just as a language heard on audio clips or read in books but as a living entity that preserves the heart, soul, knowledge and wisdom of our culture. It's one of the most important tasks we have."

For more information on Inupiaq Studies and Ilisagvik, contact Recruiter Janelle Everett at 1.800.478.7337, ext. 1799, or 907.852.1799, or visit


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