INDIGENOUS LANGUAGE IMMERSION

McCarty & Watahomigie (1998) state that nearly 2 million American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians live in the U.S., representing over 500 tribes and 175 distinct languages. Yet only 20 of those languages are currently being transmitted to children (McCarty, 1998). Without intergenerational transmission, the rest are expected to disappear in the next several decades. During the first half of the twentieth century, education of indigenous peoples in the U.S. was marked by systematic attempts to purge the heritage languages and cultures from the Native American psyche. Native children were forcefully taken from their families and sent away to boarding schools in distant places where they were humiliated and beaten when caught speaking their native languages (Dick, 1998). Submersed in English-only classrooms, many children struggled in school and grew up ashamed of their languages.

Crawford (2004) points out that for indigenous peoples in particular, language serves as the central storehouse of tribal history, customs, and values. Because indigenous cultures are based on oral traditions passed down from one generation to the next, language death often means the death of the culture as well—little is left of the group’s memory and ways of interacting with the world. For children, language loss often results in the erosion of cultural identity and self-esteem, factors that are linked to academic achievement. Thus language plays a central role in the education of indigenous children.

Among the best known indigenous language immersion programs in the U.S. are the bilingual education programs on the Navajo nation, the largest Indian reservation in the U.S. Rough Rock was the first school to teach in the Navajo language, and became a model for many indigenous communities (McCarty, 2002). With a locally elected, all-Indian governing board, Rough Rock reflected Navajo attitudes, values, and styles of interacting—school was no longer perceived as “an alien institution run by outsiders” (Crawford, 2004: 277). At Rough Rock, specific classrooms and teachers are designated solely for Navajo language instruction. In these classrooms, Navajo social-living lessons (e.g., weaving, silversmithing, and leather crafts), as well as formal language instruction, are carried out in Navajo (McCarty, 1998).

Evaluations of the Rough Rock program over a six-year period show consistent improvements on both local and national achievement measures, including qualitative assessments of students’ Navajo and English writing (McCarty, 1998). For a full five years, students at Rough Rock performed better on local tests of Navajo and English than similar cohorts with little or no time in the program. At Rock Point, another school which offers a K-12 program with literacy and content classes in Navajo, student outcomes have been as significant in English as they have been in Navajo (McCarty & Watahomigie, 1998). In both programs, students develop Navajo literacy at no cost to their development of English literacy and academic achievement.

In New Zealand, concern over the extensive loss of the Maori language led to the creation of programs in which only Maori was spoken (May & Hill, 2005). Total-immersion preschool programs called Te Kohanga Reo (“language nests”) were first established in 1982 and have become famous for their early language success with Maori speakers (Baker, 2006). By 1995, close to 50% of all Maori preschoolers attended Te Kohanga Reo, and the New Zealand government now funds all programs (Garda, 2009). Other indigenous language education programs, such as those in Hawaii, have used the total-immersion model to teach children Hawaiian, a language that had drastically declined in use. Known as ‘Aha PUnana Leo, the Hawaiian immersion program first began in private preschools but later expanded to public elementary schools. Although the total- immersion model postpones English instruction until the fifth grade, students outscore their English-speaking counterparts on standardized tests over the long term (Crawford, 2004). The original program has been greatly expanded to include secondary schools, and it is now possible for students to receive university education in Hawaiian (Ng-Osorio & Ledward, 2011).

One of the challenges facing indigenous language immersion programs is dealing with rapid language shift in the student population. Crawford (2004) states that when bilingual education began at Rough Rock and Rock Point, at least 90% of the students started school as monolingual Navajo speakers. More than three decades later, that pattern has changed dramatically—virtually all children now speak some English upon entry and barely 50% are assessed as proficient in Navajo. May & Hill (2005) also point out that currently most students and teachers in Maori-medium education are L1 speakers of English and L2 speakers of Maori. Thus they argue that labeling Maori-medium education as “maintenance-oriented” is not entirely appropriate since many children are having to learn Maori for the first time in school. As language shift accelerates across communities and more and more students come to school not speaking their native languages well, there is a need for rethinking the role of these programs as not only “maintenance-oriented” but also “developmental” (Garda, 2009).

Another challenge facing indigenous programs is securing financial resources. Because government funding for bilingual education has been inconsistent, other sources of private and community-based funds are necessary for program continuity and success. However, local resources are often inadequate to fully sustain these programs, leading to cuts in program offerings (Crawford, 2004). Furthermore, resistance to bilingual education often comes from the parents themselves (Crawford, 2004). Many parents who have experienced discrimination on the basis of their native language want their children to learn only the socially dominant language. Parents may also forgo bilingual education out of fear that it might hurt their children’s academic performance. Thus, ensuring a successful program requires convincing parents that bilingual education not only promotes language acquisition but also positive academic skills.

Next, I discuss developmental bilingual education for immigrant children, another linguistic minority group.

 
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