PUBLISHED: 5:55 PM on Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Metlakatla elementary school adds Shm'algyack language to curriculum
METLAKATLA - "Sha'aam-dza waan," meaning, "wishing you well," in Shm'algyack language, is how teacher Wilma Baines-Chahim ends her goodbyes. She is one of concerned educators preserving the 'Tsimshian culture and heritage through teaching the language at Richard Johnson Elementary School in Metlakatla.

Tsimshians reside throughout Alaska as well as Metlakatla, Ketchikan and the Seattle area, and in recent history circles have been broken due to elimination of language from their culture.

"Our language is called Shm'algyack, which means 'The True Language.' Our language is a 'language isolate' and is on the endangered list. And we are fortunate to have some fluent speakers here in the community," said Baines, who is part of the Elementary Guidance Program at Richard Johnson school.

Baines-Chahim has been teaching the 'Tsimshian heritage history to sixth grade students for a few years. After the first quarter, students are given an assessment to determine which direction to take the class.

"Last year's 6th grade students decided that they wanted to learn the language. They certainly showed the enthusiasm while learning it. We then needed to search for curriculum that I can teach, since I need to learn the language myself," she said.

Looking for curriculum, Baines-Chahim found fluent 'Tsimshian speaker Donna Sumner-Roberts, who fulfilled the task, providing her with advice, guidance and limited materials through last year.

Courtesy photo
  Teacher Wilma Baines-Chahim, far right, is preserving the 'Tsimshian culture and heritage by teaching the language Shm'algyack at Richard Johnson Elementary School in Metlakatla.
Now we have the curriculum that she developed, which includes workbooks and CDs for every student, she said.

"It is our hopes and dreams that this is the beginning of the revitalization of Shm'algyack and that it flourishes throughout the district and into the community. As I was told by an elder in Canada, when I observed their language program for a week, 'the language is the spirit of the people and without the language, the people are without a spirit,'" Baines-Chahim said. "This put a vision and purpose in my mind and heart that we need to do something."

Or in Shm'algyack as Sumner-Roberts also says, "Dum-baaldum," meaning, "we will try," she said.

"All Natives were forbidden to speak their language in the schools, starting in the late 1880's. As each generation lost the ability to speak this reduced the number of speakers. Lack of a workable curriculum and qualified teachers contribute heavily to this problem," she said.

Recently, Sumner-Roberts and husband Tony Roberts visited the school on Oct. 15-Oct. 18, meeting with sixth grade students, staff, public and parents. Sumner-Roberts has been teaching Shm'algyack for the past 15 years.

The workshop, called "Shm'algyack in Motion," taught the teaching curriculum "Language By Osmosis," with the aid of Total Physical Response, used for preservation of the 'Tsmshian culture.

"It provides a sense of identity and pride. Restoring the language instills confidence in who we are and allows us to stand tall," said Sumner-Roberts.

As noted by her research, learning a second language has ranked high in stress. This problem with learning a second language intrigues psychologist James Asher. He found that less than 5 percent who started in a second language continued to proficiency because they could not endure the stressful nature of formal school training in languages. Research reveals three critical elements in the way children acquire their first language: They develop listening skills far in advance of speaking; understanding is developed by responding physically; and children internalize the information they are receiving.

Asher coined the term "Total Physical Response," where the right side of the brain is characterized as tolerant, willing to cooperate, not verbally expressive, but favors physical ways to communicate. The TPR approach is the right brain method of learning a second language because it is taught mainly through actions.' By acquiring a language, almost by osmosis, the student's chance of success is greatly improved, states Sumner-Roberts.

According to the Learning Pyramid, the average retention rate after 48 hours of practice by doing, TPR is 75 percent.

"'Language by Osmosis' provides the student with a way to confidently participate in conversational language. It also provides the student the fun of acquiring a language by actively participating in the process without the stress that normally accompanies this experience. It is designed to be easy and comfortable from the first lesson to the last," she said.

Where Shm'algyack is taught, no other language at the elementary level is offered. Spanish is taught at the Metlakatla High School for the past few years.

The language class is being established in the school as an ongoing program.

"The children will need the consistency and the curriculum offers the tools of consistency. For now, it will continue in the sixth grade and we hope to expand the program into the middle school, if we get funding for it," said Baines-Chahim. "In the future, as the program develops and grows it may be taught to community members that are interested. And, maybe other teachers will surface during Donna Sumner-Roberts' workshop for the community."

She said a big part of the program's success was due to the support and encouragement from sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Christiansen and Principal, John Hurley.

"As a beginner, I chose to take on the challenge since I heard the sincerity in the children's hearts and they showed it in their enthusiasm as they learned. They look forward to the day we have the language class, because it is so much fun and more fun for me to learn and teach as I watch them," said Baines-Chahim.

For more information on Shm'algyack language visit: