Comedy lifeline: video skits teach endangered Lushootseed language

Your language is dying out, fast. Only a few people speak it fluently, and once they’re gone, the language goes too.

With time running out, would you choose between learning the language perfectly, or learning to communicate despite minor flaws in how you use it – mistakes in pronunciations and accents?

This situation is playing out in Seattle. The Puyallup Tribe’s Lushootseed language is dying out. UNESCO recognizes it as a critically endangered language with only five speakers of it left, and all of them elderly.

With their language dwindling rapidly, several members of the Puyallup Tribe decided that traditional language teaching methods were not effective in instilling love and interest. A modern twist was needed to rekindle people to uphold their history and culture.

The Puyallup Tribal Language Program is taking a novel approach and blending traditional teaching methods with digital media.

With their smartphones and an Internet connection, Chris Duenas and Archie Cantrell utilized social media to reach out to the younger crowd and instill an interest in learning Lushootseed. Duenas is a media developer at the Language Centre, and Cantrell is a Youth Coordinator at the Puyallup Tribe Youth Community Center. Together, they are a language-teaching powerhouse.

Cantrell says that he is still learning the language, and isn’t fluent in it. Duenas, on the other hand, insists that one doesn’t need to be fluent and perfect in the language one uses in order to communicate and be understood.

“Correcting people early on is discouraging. We want them to have the freedom to speak the language; we let people mess up the accents. I don’t think getting accents wrong will hinder the structure – language will develop,” Duenas says.

The language also has to adapt, he added, stating that that’s the only way for language to grow and survive. And the way to have it grow is to have people speaking it.

We have absolutely no first-language speakers. There used to be restrictions on who could teach the language and you had to be of a Western Washington tribe to teach it; so the reach was limited to about 20 people,” Duenas said.

Cantrell added that people also want to be entertained. This underlies all the educational language videos they make.

“If you’re entertained, you’re going to keep watching it, so we make skits. We thought it would be a good idea to just be stupid. We just take up really random ideas people talk about, and put them up in Lushootseed.”

The duo doesn’t focus on grammatical structures or individual words, but focuses on phrases instead. Each skit is about a ridiculous situation in which a particular phrase is repeated enough times for children to be able to laugh and imitate it, thereby absorbing the language. Learners take in whole phrases which include common lines like “Good day,” “What are you doing?” and “Until we meet again,” to name a few.

Chris in part of a bear costume used as a prop in their skits, posing for a picture with an exchange student from South Asia. Photo by Aisha Nazim.
Chris Duenas in part of a bear costume used as a prop in their skits, posing for a picture with an exchange student from South Asia. (Photo by Aisha Nazim.)

This video focuses on the phrase “ʔudᶻubalikʷ čəł” (“what are you doing?”). The clip is short – two minutes – and easy to catch up on. The dialogue lasts a minute, and the rest is entertaining as you watch Cantrell (yes, it’s him in the video) dramatically and enthusiastically get ready to dance.

Half the video is of Cantrell dancing in front of the TV. Yet, as far as language learning goes, it’s also  successful, because viewers latch onto the phrases they see repeated throughout the videos. This is one of the longer videos, as most of the others are just around 45 seconds long.

With enough repetition, viewers can get the hang of several Lushootseed phrases within the course of a day; which exactly is what Duenas, Cantrell and the rest of the team are aiming at achieving – the acquisition and usage of everyday Lushootseed.

Their audience interacts with them frequently on Facebook, in which their page Twulshootseed has over 500 likes and is growing fast. The pair’s work is simple yet extremely effective. Little kids recognize them from their videos and greet them in Lushootseed when they run into them in real life. However, they don’t have plans to streamline their teaching methods as yet.

Duenas says that as far as an “actual plan” and timeline is concerned, they are still learning and building momentum. The long-term goal is to make this sustainable, keep it going, and one day, have a camp which functions purely in Lushootseed.

Left to right: Archie Cantrell and Chris Duenas, who teach the Lushootseed language. (Photo by Aisha Nazim.)
Left to right: Archie Cantrell and Chris Duenas, who teach the Lushootseed language.
(Photo by Aisha Nazim.)