Monday, May 01, 2006

Language Nests - Nurturing First Nation Languages

On May 1, this day when we are so focused on immigration issues, let's step back and look at this issue for First Nations, the only people in North America who are not immigrants (at least in the last several thousand years):

The Boston Globe Magazine on Sunday, April 30, 2006 featured a story about the Penobscot tribe in Maine working to teach children to speak the Penobscot language before the last native speakers die out. This is a problem for other aboriginal peoples. From Maori tribes in New Zealand, to Hawaiians, to Nizpuh (Blackfoot), Arapaho and Mohawk tribes in North America, to Welsh and Irish speakers of Gaelic, as native speakers age, there is a growing urgency to save languages on the brink of dying.

As long ago as 1905, the speaking of Maori was banned in New Zealand schools. Like other aboriginal people, the Maori became ashamed of their language and culture after being punished in school and taught that it was somehow lower or less cultured than the European colonial cultures.

Faced with alienation and aging native speakers, the Maori elders developed on their own immersion programs for children in the early 1980's, called Te Kohanga Reo, or language nest schools. The children are placed with native speaking elders in the school, where nothing but the native language is spoken. Even science and math and English are taught in Maori language. Part of the program is to increase pride in one’s heritage, and therefore there is no smoking, and the school is kept crupulously clean. One of the problems is to maintain the speaking of Maori and cultural habits once the children leave the language nest and move into mainstream schools. The New Zealand government began to fund the language schools for elementary and secondary education. The Kohanga Reo schools are uniquely integrated with the families and communities, because the school board and principals are answerable to the community as a whole. Maori children are thriving in the schools according to the Maori reports, although the New Zealand Ministry of education is concerned with the schools meeting requirements before being funded.

Hawaii began in 1983 to offer family-based pre-school with native speech immersion. In 1987, the state changed its English-only education law, and Pünana Leo immersion schools became available funded by the state.

The mission statement for these schools explain in a moving way what the native peoples working to save their language (and culture) see
in these language nests:

The Pünana Leo Movement grew out of a dream that there be reestablished throughout Hawai’i the mana of a living Hawaiian language from the depth of our origins . The Pünana Leo initiates, provides for and nurtures various Hawaiian Language environments, and we find our strength in our spirituality, love of our
language, love of our people, love of our land, and love of knowledge.
(Aha Pünana Leo, 2003).

In 1999, the first Hawaiian immersion students graduated from high school, and the University of Hawai’i at Hilo has a Hawaiian immersion teacher-training program to staff new immersion schools.

There are newer language nest schools for the Nizpuh or Blackfoot tribe in Montana, Arapaho, and another for the Mohawk tribe in New York state. There is a great deal of interest in saving native languages among other tribes, such as the Wampanoag and the Penobscot on the east coast.

Darrell R Kipp, who co-founded the Cut-Bank Language Immersion School that teaches the Blackfoot language in Montana gives the following advice:

* Rule 1: Never Ask Permission, Never Beg to
Save the Language. Go ahead and get started,
don’t wait even five minutes. Don’t wait for a
grant. ...

* Rule 2: Don’t Debate the Issues

* Rule 3: Be Very Action-Oriented: Just Act

* Rule 4: Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t talk about
what you will do. Do it and show it.

Here are some notes from a variety of web-
accessible resources:
e.html link

This is a very lengthy site, aimed at professional
educators. It is very informative, and briskly
business-like. It includes social-science style
citations to references. It is based on British
Columbia, so it includes Okanagan Language
Association, and discusses other First Nations
efforts to save their languages and cultures.
Includes a sample syllabus and list of courses
offered for adults in native language.

For instance, it has a section on standards. The
website warns the reader that not all aboriginal
language programs as proposed or in existence
meet reasonable goals: 1) teach the student to
speak proficiently, with confidence and ease so
that they will speak the language at home with
their own children; 2) provide incentives and
measures for re-integrating the use of the
language outside the school in the household
and community. This website notes for
instance, that British Columbia has a Language
Education Policy. That means it also has similar
standards for the teaching of aboriginal
languages in the public school system. Many of
the tribes are uncomfortable having an outside
system impose standards in education rather
than developing their own system and standards.
However, it is part of the package if the
government funds native language education as
part of the public education system. It is a
useful if uncomfortable site to read.

Native Language Immersion
by Jon Reyhner

A very informative compilation of information,
again with social science style citations. The
end of this article summarizes what he calls
“The Natural Approach:”

The best way to acquire a second language is the
same way children acquire a first language:
Immerse students in a second language rich
environment rather than the traditional teaching-
learning situation. As Judith Lindors states,
“What’s good for the first-language learner is
good for the second.” As well worked out
approach to immersion education is Stephen
Krashen and Tracy Terrell’s (1983) Natural
Approach, which is based on four principles:

1. “Comprehension Precedes Production”
* The teacher always uses the language he or
she is teaching;
* The lesson (what is talked about) is focused
on a topic that the students are interested in and
* The teacher works continuously to help
students understand using gestures, visuals, and
real objects.

2. Students learn new languages in stages,
beginning with a “silent period” where they just
listen and then by starting to speak single words,
then a few words, then phrases, and finally
moving to sentences and complex discourse.
Errors in grammar and pronunciation that do not
interfere with understanding should not be

3. The objective of learning a language is to be
able to carry out a conversation in that language.
Lessons should center on an activity rather an a
grammatical structure.

4. Classroom activities need to lessen student
anxiety. They need ot focus on topics of interest
and relevancy to the students and “encourage
them to express their ideas, opinioins, desires,
emotions, and feelings.” The teacher needs to
create a warm, friendly, welcoming classroom to
insure language learning. (Adapted from
Reyhner, 1992, pp. 75-76)

He includes a reference to more information on
immersion at

Teaching Indigenous Languages
website at
This is a website about the Arapaho immersion program. Written by Steve Greymorning, and published as part of a book at Northern Arizona University. It is an exciting account of his adventures establishing the immersion program on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. He talks in detail about what works.


E Ola Ka ‘Olelo Hawai’i (1997) Winner of two
Canadian film festival awards. In Hawaiian
with English subtitles. 23 minutes. For more
information, e-mail

Official website of the Hawaiian Language Immersion Program
Since 1987, Hawai'i has had 2 official languages. The Hawai'i State Constitution mandates (in Article X, Section 4) "to promote the study of Hawaiian culture, language and history and the persistent requests of parents and Hawaiian community leaders, the Department of Education established the Hawaiian Language Immersion Program, Ka Papahana Kaiapuni Hawai'i."

Kipp, Darrell R. (2000) Encouragement,
Guidance, Insights, and Lessons Learned for
Native Language Activists Developing Their
Own Tribal Language Program (St. Paul, MN:
Grott Foundation)


Te Kohanga Reo
About the Maori Language Nest program.


November2, 2002, Issue 73
An “online newsletter celebrating Native
America,” Canku Ota means Many Paths. This
issue containss an article titled “Saving a
Culture” by Reed Lindsey, “Special to the
Washington Times.” It tells the story of the
Blackfoot language nest very beautifully.
Nice illustration.

Here is their home page


In the Language of Our Ancestors

NorthWest Education Magazine (online), an article about language immersion programs in the Pacific Northwest and Montana, September, 2003. Accessible and has some of the same research provided in the lengthy text article by Jon Reyhner, above.


There was also a, intersting story in the November,
2003 Smithsonian Magazine, titled, “Tribal
Talk: Immersion schools try to revive and
preserve Native American languages.” Written
by Michelle Nijhuis, it is a excellent article.

Akwesasne Freedom School
The Mohawk language and culture school in
New York state. A private school receives no
state funding. You can see also an article in Canku Ota, the online newsletter, about Akwesasne Freedom school,
receiving an environmental award at


An exciting Canadian initiative to teach teachers for young children. Based in Nova Scotia. Page is dated June, 2003. For further information, e-mail


Native American Language Immersion: Innovative Native Education for Children and Families by Janine Pease-Pretty On Top.

A lengthy PDF file, but full of detailed information for organizations wishing to plan an immersion program.


Turtle Island Native Network on cultures and languages. Includes links to hear spoken language and live radio in various First Nation languages. I have decorated this blog entry with the bead turtle decoration from this wonderful website. It is full of interesting links.


A report on The American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI)and the Southwest Memory Project. AILDI was founded in 1978 by Hualapai tribal educators, Native American parents, and experts in linguistics to help several Southwest tribes develop a written language and curriculum materials that reflect attention to Native American students' heritage, needs, and learning styles. Dated 1995.


Dept. of Education: No Child Left Behind program for Native American and Alaska Native School Children with limited English.

As part of the over arching No Child Left Behind P.L. 107-110, Part B, sections 3201 et seq 'Improving Language Instruction Educational Programs For Academic Achievement Act' covers "public institutions or agencies whose mission is the preservation and maintenance of native languages."


The grants for children and families are no longer announced in the Federal Register; you have to go to link or to the above site for specific grants which are available for after school programs for language programs, for instance. There is a grant opportunity open until March 8 for Native American Language Maintenance announced there in January.

No comments: