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Northern exposure

lthough English has become a standard second language in many cultures, one former English teacher is making sure it doesn’t drive another language into extinction.

Stephen O’Brien ’72 is the principal of Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, an Eskimo language immersion school in Bethel, Alaska. He moved to Alaska in 1979 to teach English, where, in Bethel, many citizens spoke Yup’ik, their native language. “When I first arrived in Alaska, they didn’t have TV or anything, so the only language they saw or heard was their own,” says O’Brien. “Most people stuck with their original dialect.”

O’Brien planned on staying for two years. But as time passed, so did the idea of teaching English. Alaskans’ increased exposure to television and radio led to greater English proficiency and a downturn in Yup’ik speakers. The latest generation of Bethel children started speaking English as their first language. Parents asked local schools to help the children re-learn their native language and in 1995, the Yup’ik language immersion school began as an extension of the existing Bethel school system. In 1998, the state granted permission to begin a language immersion charter school and thus Ayaprun Elitnaurvik began.

O’Brien is well aware of the statistics indicating academic benefits for bilingual students. Although he’s not fluent with Yup’ik, O’Brien oversees a staff of 12 native-speaking teachers. They use full language immersion, speaking Yup’ik exclusively from grades K-2. By third grade, they introduce a mix of English and Yup’ik.

His English-teaching days far behind him, O’Brien’s career change has helped preserve a native language and improve his young students’ academic success—two rewarding accomplishments no matter which language one teaches.

from summer ’01

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