Chelsey Zibell, of Noorvik, is working on creating a website to help students learn to speak Iñupiatun. - provided by Chelsey Zibell

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UAF grad creates Web site for language learners

February 2nd 3:05 pm | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

Chelsey Qaggun Zibell, 29, has come a long way from home but stays tied to her roots through language. Zibell grew up in Noorvik and now teaches high school English at the Effie Kokrine Charter School in Fairbanks. After finishing high school in the village, she earned her bachelor's degree in English literature and Inupiaq language from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She then completed a master's program there in literature and creative writing and earned a teaching certificate in English secondary education. Her lifelong passion for language learning and teaching has now culminated in a project to help others following in her footsteps. She recently designed a website, hosted by the university, to help students of Inupiatun. She hopes the site will be an easily accessible tool for people who want to learn the language she holds dear. The Sounder spoke with Zibell about her work:

Q: First, tell us a little bit about the background of this project.

A: "This project began about a year ago as a discussion between the current Iñupiaq teacher at UAF and a member from UAF's eLearning department and myself (about) Iñupiaq language needing a new updated resource and what we could do to make that happen. What ended up happening is I entered a summer graduate fellowship with UAF's eLearning department. Initially, the goal was to create some sort of hybrid textbook and we weren't really sure what the format would be. That was my task — to figure out what that would be, what would be in it and where it would go in the future. So, I spent last summer working on that goal. It ended up becoming a website that would have different language lessons and activities in it."

Q: At the time you were at having those early discussions, what were you thinking about the state of accessibility of the language for people who would like to learn?

A: "My experience with learning the language myself and also seeing other people try to learn it is that for someone, like myself, who has background in the language — I heard it spoken growing up and I was taught phrases and vocabulary but never achieved fluency — I kind of had a running start when I really started learning grammar in college. Even I found it really difficult just to internalize the different grammar rules and the way the language works. Often, in my mind, I compare it to my experience learning German, which was a lot easier for me. Even though you might not think that English and German are very similar, when you compare English to a language like Iñupiaq, they are very different. So, learning a language like German was a lot quicker for me as opposed to Iñupiaq. What I noticed other students struggling with was along those lines. It's a language that's so different, both in how it sounds and how sentences are constructed, it's really easy to get frustrated with it."

Q: Could you share a little about the website itself, what you decided to include in it and why?

A: "I took inspiration from the print textbook that is already there. You start with sounds, letters in the alphabet, and then I went into some areas that jumped off of that, like how to put sounds together. Where I tried to change it up a little bit was the direction or the order that a user could go through the units and the lessons. They can go in a linear fashion, but they can also choose a particular subject or an area of the language that they want to focus on, like transitive verbs or sentences. I also wanted to make sure I included a resource list because there are quite a number of resources out there for the Inupiaq language. It's just a matter of knowing where they are and how to get to them. I also included a page that's called 'Piuraagin', or 'Play'. In that, I was playing myself with creating this interactive content to bring language with some sort of visual, like an image or a video to aid, a learner in learning vocabulary."

Q: Something the Sounder covered last week was the recent report from the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council (ANILPAC) on the state of Alaska Native languages and how they are all in a vulnerable position. There's also hope, though, because there are a lot of people who are trying to learn them. What are your thoughts in terms of the future of this language and what you'd like to see happen with it?

A: "Honestly, sometimes my view of the future of the Inupiaq language is very grim because I see there's a lot of interest in learning the language, but a lot of times I see that frustration take over, and just the business of life take over, and inhibit that time spent learning a language. I'm also very hopeful that the language will be revived because there is so much interest in learning and revitalizing it. Really, it's a matter of making a commitment to learning the language because it's not something you can do passively. It's something you have to do very actively and incorporate into your daily life. It's not an easy thing. It's something that I struggle with. It's just so much easier to conduct my day in English that I forget to include things like teaching my own daughter Inupiaq words. I think there are definitely tools already out there — tools that are being created to aid in the revitalization of Inupiaq — but it's really important that people are not only interested in wanting to learn the language. It's realizing that they need to make this part of their daily life if they're going to be successful in achieving fluency."

Q: What does speaking Inupiaq give to you? What do you feel when you're speaking it?

A: "I feel a lot of pride in my culture and in my language. I feel empowered when I speak Inupiaq because I've been learning the language, essentially, my whole life. I've come a long way, but I've still got a lot to learn. So, whenever I'm able to speak to someone else, and hold even just a small, basic conversation, I feel really empowered because I can remember back to when I knew just words and phrases and I can see how far I've come. Then, I think about how I can help others get to where I'm at and hopefully further than where I'm at."

Q: Why do you think it's important for people to learn another language, specifically Iñupiaq or an indigenous language?

A: "I think there's so much culture embedded in language that if you want to continue the culture, continuing the language is also very important. Another reason is just there's so many beautiful languages out there, including Inupiaq, that I think it's important to speak them and to learn them and to keep them going. I, personally, just enjoy learning languages and seeing how people communicate in different cultures and in different parts of the world."

Q: What do you think is still needed in the language learning landscape? What are some gaps that should be filled to make it easier for people?

A: "I think having a complete and comprehensive curriculum is very necessary. There are language curricula out there, but as far as something like a college course, the curricula and the grammar resources that are there are not entirely complete or they're very technical. They have very heavy linguistic terminology that, for a person who is interested in the linguistic aspects of language is great, but for someone who is an everyday learner, it can be a bit of a stumbling block for them. So, I think explaining in a format that's more understandable to someone who is not interested in the linguistic aspects of a language is very necessary."

Q: What would you like people to take away from your website or your own experience?

A: "To start, the website is a project that is not finished. I'm actually going to be working on it this month. The reason I bring that up is because learning language is a continuous effort. There's not really a place where you can say, 'OK I've learned enough, now I'm just going to stop and coast.' It's an active process and it takes daily practice and speaking with other people. Community involvement is a part of that. Just like this website that I've created is an ongoing project, language learning is an ongoing process that needs to happen in daily life. Sometimes it just takes reminding yourself that that needs to happen."

Q: Is there anything you'd like to add that I didn't ask you about?

A: "I just want to end on that idea that we talked about earlier, on hope and language revitalization. I know that a lot of people are worried and anxious about the future — not just about Inupiaq but also Alaska Native languages in general. There is reason to be worried and to be concerned, but I think that just seeing the desire that people have to learn Native languages is very uplifting and I think our languages can definitely stay strong."

Acess Zibell's website at


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