Red Cliff Early Childhood Center
Reggie Cadotte shows children at the Red Cliff Early Childhood Center how to parch manoomin (wild rice).

Preserving Culture: 6 Early Childhood Language Immersion Programs

Tanya H. Lee
4/23/14

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, D-Montana, introduced the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act in January. If passed, the legislation would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to create a grant program that would make an additional $5 million available to improve the academic achievement of American Indian children by supporting the revitalization and preservation of Native American languages through language immersion programs. The legislation has been referred to Tester's committee. Currently, federal funding for language immersion derives from legislation that includes the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act.

Language immersion schools have proved to be enormously beneficial for young learners’ academics. To quote Dr. Janine Pease-Pretty on Top, Crow, founding president of Little Big Horn College, “Solid data from the Navajo, Blackfeet and Assiniboine immersion schools experience indicates that the language immersion students experience greater success in school, measured by consistent improvement on local and national measures of achievement.” Early childhood language immersion programs must be adapted to the cultural and financial resources available. Here are some examples of how educators have done that.

The Pumvhakv Immersion School, located just north of the Seminole city limits, sits on a 10-acre tract of land and was acquired in late January 2012. (lmharjoforchief.com)

The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma funds the Pumvhakv Immersion School, which serves five 2 and 3 year olds in a full immersion Maskoke language program. “Our teacher is actually a first language speaker who has an associate’s degree in early childhood education,” said Jenn Johnson, who is in charge of curriculum development for the tribe’s Cultural Resources Department. “She’s really a gem because it is very rare to find a first language speaker who has acquired the necessary teacher training…. The reason we chose to teach the language beginning with infants and toddlers is because language acquisition theory and early childhood research consistently finds that the earlier a child is exposed to a language, the more they will acquire it.  The best way to acquire a language is through intergenerational transmission, from parent to child. However, within our community, the current parental generation is almost exclusively monolingual English speakers,” Johnson said. The school plans to add a kindergarten in 2016 and eventually expand to serve first through sixth graders.

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