Language Spotlight: Benhti Kenaga

Sarah and Johnny record for the Benhti Kenaga' language course
Elder, Sarah Silas, and a young student.

 

This summer we teamed up with the Doyon Foundation to release five new language learning courses.

 

“Hearing everyone speak our languages is the most beautiful music… like all the birds singing together to make an amazing song.” – Sarah Silas

 

Over the next few weeks, we will spotlight each course to share the culture and stories behind these languages to emphasize the importance of keeping not only these select languages alive but the many thousands of dialects that are at risk of extinction. Our fourth language spotlight is the critically endangered language of Benhti Kenaga. 

The Benhti Kenaga’ language, also known as Menhti Kenaga, Tanana or Lower Tanana, is a Northern Athabaskan language. When addressing Alaska’s First Nations, it is respectful to call their cultures, traditions, and languages by their tribal names. Benhti Kenaga’ is the name that speakers of this language use. Benhti/Mehnti means “among the lakes”. It is spoken in eastern Alaska by people who live on the Tanana River in the villages of Minto and Nenana, Alaska. Currently, there are roughly 15-30 speakers, thanks to 93-year-old Sarah Silas, who was the last known fluent speaker of Benhti Kenaga’ for many years. Sarah has priceless knowledge, but she can’t easily share it with the hundreds of kids who want to know about their culture. 

Research has shown that kids who learn their heritage language have higher self-esteem, do better in school, and are more likely to graduate. But in many communities, the last remaining speakers are too old to teach in schools. That’s where we come in. We worked with Sarah, Doyon Foundation and her community to create a free online course. Now kids all over the world will be able to learn Benhti Kenaga’ as if Sarah were in the room with them.

Each course we create would cost the community $200,000, but we charge them nothing. Instead, we adapt software donated by the language-learning industry and raise our operating funds from donors who are passionate about language. This means that the funds that would have been spent on software remain in the community, where they can make an even greater impact. To help us continue our work, please consider donating. If you are interested in learning Benhti Kenaga, or the multitude of other languages we offer, you can learn any of them for free on our website right now.