“It’s for the Language!”

One of the techniques in Where Are Your Keys? is called “Same Conversation.” By having the same conversation several times, covering the same vocabulary, grammar, questions, and responses, learners gain confidence in the words they are choosing, and are able to practice putting them together smoothly and correctly.

While Evan was teaching me Chinuk Wawa in Oregon, I convinced him to let us try out Podnah’s, a smokehouse barbecue restaurant in Portland that is rumoured to be the best in the city. The next day, as we considered what we wanted to accomplish for the day, we decided that a repeat visit to Podnah’s was necessary. “It’s for the language!” we slyly claimed, citing the “Same Conversation” technique as the reason we needed to return. Sure enough, I got to practice talking about my favourite meats! We even got in a little round of the “Translator” technique, when Evan asked me for a sharp knife in Chinuk and made me translate the request to our waiter.

We were charmed but also a little unsettled by the thought of the things we do “for the language,” and were certain that others have likely done funny or strange, but not always useful, things in the name of learning or protecting a language. Please share yours with us! Feel free to use the hashtag #itsforthelanguage—and we’d love to see accompanying pictures!

Post authored by Caylie

Being a Stealth Hunter in Another Country

When I moved to Israel this past year, I knew hardly anything about Hebrew, but I was determined not to let that stop me from living like an Israeli. I’ve been using WAYK for the last few years with friends on everything from Latin to Chinook Wawa, and I was ready to go stealth. No one in Israel knew WAYK techniques, and I knew I wouldn’t have time to teach the people in coffee shops and post offices as I passed through. Instead, I decided to use WAYK techniques (TQs) on everyone I knew, but secretly. This meant learning some key phrases fast. I started with ma ze? (What is that?) Armed with this phrase I could find out words like machberet, notebook; studentit, student; and most importantly, cafe hafuch for my morning espresso. Another key word was shuv, again, which helped me use the WAYK TQ for “again” without the sign. If my goal was to find out a new word (like cubiot, which was what I was creating when I diced tomatoes), I could do an elaborate set up, with a knife and tomatoes, and then ask, “What am I doing?” And get my word.

But my greatest asset, learned from WAYK, was fearlessness. I learned from WAYK that rather than being ashamed of my mistakes (How fascinating!), I can use them as tools to hunt new words. If I know what I wanted to say, but used words that I knew were probably wrong but were clear or set up well despite that, I could learn anything. For example, one day, I had made a new friend, and wanted to tell my roommates (all Israeli, and all previously instructed to only speak to me in Hebrew). I bravely told them asiti haver, I made a friend, knowing full well I was telling them something more like, “I built a friend out of clay or sticks,” and they replaced my faux pas with a new piece of information! It was actually rakashti haver.

The big difference between me and my fellow students that I’ve seen in my time learning Hebrew is that I am not scared to speak, and that I know how to hunt; that is, I know how to look for what I want. Armed with these skills, I’ve been able to become proficient in Hebrew in the space of 9 months. I can pay my bills, apply for jobs, and have conversations about politics and religion (popular topics there), all in Hebrew.

Post authored by Jenni.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Speaking my Language

Even though I’ve been a student of Latin since 1993, I only ever really learned about the language. It is likely that many Latin teachers around the globe have encountered the same problem: being the student of a language for decades without ever using the language for it’s original purpose: communication. Latin is too often treated as a strange relic of a time gone by—something to examine through the glass of a museum display—and not what it really is: a language that has served a communicative purpose for thousands of years.

It wasn’t until 2011 that I first truly made use of the language I had been studying off and on for almost 20 years. I was filled with anxiety about the venture—what would it say about me if I couldn’t put together a comprehensible sentence in a language that I was supposed to know? I signed up for a week long Latin immersion experience (called a Conventiculum) and then tried not to think about it until right before I left. The first night when I arrived, everyone was still speaking English, but I overheard the most eloquent and idiomatic Latin conversation (it was between two men, whom I now know were among the world’s most fluent Latin speakers). Needless to say, it did not improve my own confidence. The next morning, one of these men, who had probably only learned about WAYK a week or so earlier ran my first real Latin immersion session. The very first things he taught us were how to get him to speak slower and louder. Even though I didn’t know it, I threw TQ “Slow” about 10 minutes into my first Latin immersion session, and it was the best safety net I could have had.

In the three years since then, I’ve gone to 6 more Latin immersion experiences, seen WAYK used in earnest, taught Latin and learned Chinuk Wawa using WAYK. I know now that any language learning experience I have, even if it doesn’t explicitly use WAYK is going to be something I can approach on my own terms. Although WAYK’s primary mission is to create an abundance of language teachers for languages that have few or none, a consequence of it’s methodologies is that language learners are empowered and can overcome their anxieties in the quest for fluency.

Click here to learn more about the 2014 Spoken Latin project in West Virginia. Post authored by Susanna.

Why You Should Intern for WAYK! by Julia


1) You’ll meet cool people.

    If you want to get to know really awesome people, working on language revitalization projects is a great place to meet them.  

    Together with my fellow intern Will Monroe, I spent this past summer in Kodiak, Alaska working with elders and learners of Kodiak Alutiiq.  I was blown away by the warmth, capability, creativity and humor of the team of individuals who dedicated their time to learning and teaching Alutiiq.  They were incredibly supportive and welcoming at every stage, from first getting my bearings on the island, to teaching me how to bathe in a banya and clean fresh-caught salmon (in Alutiiq!), to saying goodbye at the end of the summer.  

2) You’ll gain social, organizational and linguistic skills.

    WAYK challenges you and lets you shine.  You’ll get to polish your chops in the following arenas, at a bare minimum:

•Explaining what WAYK is and generating enthusiasm

    Hone your elevator pitch skills, your charisma and your handshake! When you become a WAYK intern, you’ll get invaluable experience representing an organization greater than yourself.  If you’re shy, prepare to step out of your shell.  The supermarket, a local high school, a restaurant… everywhere you go is an opportunity to reach out to potential learners.

•Creating and running rides

    Because WAYK is collaborative and ever-growing, you get to exercise your creativity while helping a particular language and enhancing the game.  Coming up with new rides for Alutiiq was one of the highlights of my summer; you get to think tactically about gameplay while infusing rides with a sense of humor and playfulness.  For instance, Will and I created a ride called “Ministry of Silly Walks” in which players each demonstrate an individualized wacky walk to illustrate the words gwaten (“like this”) and tawaten (“like that”).  It was fun to brainstorm, and even more fun to see people bring it to life!

•Handing it off: teaching how to teach

    One of the coolest parts of a WAYK internship is that it doesn’t end when you leave.  You’ll teach as many people as possible to do what you’ve learned to do– to create and run WAYK rides.  And then they teach more people.  And then the people they teach teach more people.  And then the people they teach teach more people… and before long, you have a lot of people learning and speaking the language.  Which is really cool, and good news for that language.

…And as an added bonus, you might find yourself fluent in a rare, fascinating language by the end of the summer!

3) You’ll see first-hand why language revitalization matters.

    A language is a cultural treasure trove.  It can provide keys to whole different ways of perceiving and conceptualizing the world.  It contains fascinating structures that can tell us more about how languages in general work.  For these reasons, I had a vague idea going into the summer that revitalizing languages mattered in a larger sense.  

    But it didn’t really hit home to me until I met the people to whom it mattered: the elders who wanted to hear their children and grandchildren speak to them in Alutiiq, and the members of the younger generation who wanted to learn.  Because ultimately, revitalizing a language is about serving a community– a community of past and future speakers who want to sustain a cultural heritage.  

    To me, this constitutes the single most compelling reason to care about the future of an endangered language: because other people care too, and they care a lot.

Thanks everyone for a great summer!

Contact evan@whereareyourkeys.org for more info on upcoming events and opportunities.

Sorry Charlie – Learned Helplessness


From Jason Slanga:

Today as part of our professional development, we were presented with the following video:

While watching this I got to think about Sorry Charlie.  When we throw someone a Sorry Charlie, or when we speak to quickly, we’re throwing them an impossible task.  This is the kind of thing that makes people Full, and unable to continue.
The WAYK rules are a way for students to identify impossible tasks, and make the teacher address them.  If they don’t know that Sorry Charlie is an option, they will assume that the fault is theirs, that they are incapable of learning.  We’ve all heard people who say “I tried learning a language in high school/college, but I just wasn’t very good at it.”  Clearly this can’t be true.  I think of all the times I’ve been to Rome, and seen people selling knick-knacks on the street.  These people often speak three or four languages.  They’re not the sort of people we might think of as highly learned (but I might challenge us to question that assumption), and yet they’ve mastered a skill which people in our country, with wealth and educational resources have deemed for themselves impossible.
Teaching kids about Sorry Charlie challenges the notion of the Impossible Task.  It makes them hold us accountable, and over time we can be trained not to inadvertently teach helplessness.

Julia Stiles: A preview of Kodiak Alutiiq




This past week, I was lucky to have the opportunity to fly up to Alaska and meet the community with which Will and I will be working over the summer. Throughout the flurry of introductions, everyone was incredibly kind and welcoming. I was struck by the palpable energy and enthusiasm of both the language learners and the elders; it was inspiring to see so many people contributing their creativity and personal time to the various revitalization efforts.




I spent most of my time running through existing rides with Alisha, Candace and Michael, then hunting more Alutiiq and helping invent and streamline more rides. It was fun getting the hang of collaborative ride-making, which is something of a new skill for me– I’m usually so impatient that I just hunt one thing after another in quick succession, then forget large swathes of it. It was definitely good for me to learn to apply the brakes and teach off what I had learned to someone else. In the process, I learned a bit of Alutiiq, and became quite enamored of its beautiful sound and structure. The most challenging part of this process was not leaning too heavily on my linguistics training. Because I’m studying linguistics at Stanford, it’s really tempting for me to analyze every element of the language as I encounter it– or worse, to look each pattern up in a reference grammar in order to confirm that it works how I suspect it does, which is essentially akin to googling the answers to a half-finished crossword puzzle. I have to remind myself that I’m not here on a linguistic research project per se, but on a quest to find the easiest, most intuitive way of learning and teaching the language. Realistically, the middle school and high school students who will be learning Alutiiq will not have any background in linguistics. Nor should they need to– if all the set-ups are obvious enough, learning the language should be so natural that they understand each piece of grammar simply from context, usage and its relation to other patterns within Alutiiq. To tailor the rides for this audience, I have to relinquish some of my attachment to linguistic terminology and think of the language from an internal perspective.

Discussing this challenge with Evan led us to coin a new technique: TQ “Nowhere Man”. For anyone who has seen the animated movie The Yellow Submarine, remember the part where the little nowhere man is spinning around in little circles writing footnotes for his umptieth paper while the Beatles are singing to him, cajoling him to get involved with the world?

He’s a real nowhere man/Sitting in his nowhere land/Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

Nowhere man, please listen/You don’t know what you’re missing/Nowhere man, the world is at your command…

The main point of this technique is that however you process the language, it is crucial to be able to engage and communicate with other learners in a revitalization setting. It’s all well and good for me to sit on a couch muttering to myself, “Split ergativity? Intransitive– unergative? Or antipassive…”, but that’s not really helping anyone else. If instead I can find a way to set up and prove what I’m hypothesizing, it will not only aid others who are trying to get a handle on the language, but it may also clarify my own thinking and prevent me from leaping to conclusions. To summarize TQ “Nowhere man”: Be sure you’re not so caught up in your own head that you miss the rockstars around you.

Another new thought that came out of this past week was the idea of experimental techniques for teaching younger kids to language hunt. Evan and I were wondering whether middle school-age students could get the hang of hunting, and if so, how it would be best to introduce it in a fun, approachable way. I personally love hunting, as everyone I bothered this last week will be able to attest. It makes me deeply happy to elicit new pieces of Alutiiq using dramatic facial expressions and funny scenarios, then jigsaw them together into my evolving understanding of the language. But how to convey that same hunger for language to young learners? My instinct is to make it as much of a game as possible. With that in mind, I suggested to Evan that we might start from a modified version of charades, with the following simple rules:

1. No English.

2. Superpowers: the Hunter gets to tell the Huntee to….

  • Rewind (go back in the conversation so the Hunter can get a word or pattern that went by too fast, or alter the game in a new way)
  • Slow Down
  • Speed Up

Each superpower may be signaled with a handsign, optionally accompanied with a funny sound effect.

We could introduce the game, get everyone comfortable with it, then encourage them to play it in any language in their free time– Spanish, Tagalog, anything they want. The middle schoolers could then hunt Alutiiq in any number of settings, from an after-school Girls’ Club with Candace to partner tutoring with high school students to gatherings with elders. By the time they are enrolled in an Alutiiq language class, they will already have the skillset to elicit the language they need, and they will be in the proactive, engaged mindset of advocating for their own learning. I’m truly excited to test this idea and others this summer as I work with Will to support the Alutiiq learners and teachers in the revitalization process. For several years, it has been my dream to work in language revitalization; I could not ask for a more friendly, dynamic and intelligent learning community with whom to embark on this dream. I learned so much from everyone in the past week alone, and I can only imagine how much more I will learn and grow in the course of this ten-week adventure. So, to all the Alutiiq learners and teachers (and especially to Alisha and the rest of my host family)– Quyanaasinaq!

Koyukon Language Training Media Coverage

Here’s a little piece of local media coverage of a WAYK workshop in Anchorage, Alaska: