Several Western Carolina University students seized the chance to immerse themselves in the Cherokee language for college credit this summer through a master-apprentice pilot program.
Fluent Cherokee speakers serve as language “masters” who agree to spend at least 45 hours one-on-one with WCU students, their “apprentices,” speaking exclusively and conversationally in the Cherokee language.
Thomas Belt, Western’s Cherokee Language Program coordinator and language instructor, is one of the masters participating in the program. Belt said he and his apprentice spent time at Wal-Mart, for instance, talking about merchandise and what people were doing at the store. When communication broke down, they would repeat, use gestures or draw pictures, he said.
“Coincidentally, I’m beginning to learn more about my own language and the value and the meaning of our words more intensely,” Belt said. “We have to focus on making all of the words and dialogue extremely accurate for the benefit of the apprentice, and it helps us to regain our own cultural beliefs.”
The Cherokee language is not a “code” for English, he said. The words capture the way Cherokee speakers interpret the world. Instead of “I see a bear,” the Cherokee translation would be closer to, “Bear, I see,” because the most important information to convey is not “I” but “bear,” Belt said.
One of the program’s apprentices, Jennifer Wolfe, a WCU sophomore and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said she wants to become a fluent speaker and a certified teacher so she can teach at a developing Cherokee language immersion academy.
“It is very difficult to be fully immersed in the Cherokee language because I always want to fall back on my English, which ultimately doesn’t help me to learn the language and gain fluency,” Wolfe said. “I sometimes feel like I am in a foreign country because it’s so new and I can’t understand. I’ve been exposed to the language all throughout school and a little in the community, but never completely immersed in the language. It’s nothing like being in the classrooms of school and being handed a list of vocabulary words. It is very hands-on, and you learn by doing.”
Wolfe is working with fluent speakers, including Gil Jackson, Cherokee language development supervisor at the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program, in the Cherokee language immersion room for children. There, children as young as 6 weeks old hear everything in the Cherokee language from the names of animals, numbers or announcements for snacktime.
Jackson said immersion is one of the fastest ways to learn language, and speed is critical with fewer than 1,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who can speak fluent Cherokee. “We could lose the language,” he said.
WCU’s Cherokee Studies Program had enlisted the help of Heidi Altman, a linguistic anthropologist and visiting instructor at Western from Georgia Southern University, in the program.
“This is one of the first steps in what we are hoping is going to be a more organized intensive language program at Western, where students can get certified to teach and learn to speak the Cherokee language,” Altman said. “This is just the opening volley of trying to get a major Cherokee language program going.”
The Cherokee Preservation Foundation is funding many initiatives to help revitalize the Cherokee language, including the expansion of language programs at Western that will help support the development of a Cherokee language immersion school. Western recently hired a Cherokee language program director, Hartwell Francis, to work on Western’s Cherokee language curriculum to ensure that the university is producing certified teachers who are also fluent Cherokee speakers who can teach all subjects in the Cherokee language.
For more information, contact the Cherokee Studies Program office at (828) 227-3841.