Back to the Future: Recreating Natural Indigenous Language Learning Environments

Photo Credit: Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House
Photo Credit: Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House

For a language to have a stable future, children need to be learning it. Immersion for young children has been demonstrated to be the best method for rapid language regeneration as it can produce new proficient speakers within a few years. Although early childhood language immersion programs, commonly known as language nests, have been recognized internationally as the most successful means available today for language revitalization, this method is not yet well subscribed to in Indigenous Canada.

A recent paper by Onowa McIvor, University of Victoria, and Aliana Parker, First Peoples’ Cultural Council, published in The International Journal of Holistic Early Learning and Development (3, 21-35), a Lakehead University publication, on May 17, 2016, looks at the possibilities for immersion teaching of First Nations languages. Their purpose was to produce a picture of early childhood Indigenous immersion language programming and present it as one viable solution to the challenge of Indigenous language loss in Canada, with the additional hope of providing a starting point for Indigenous community members interested in immersion early childhood approaches to their children’s health, identity development, and overall wellbeing.

The authors point out that Indigenous languages represent 96% of the world’s languages, but are spoken by only 4% of its population, leaving most of the world’s language diversity in the stewardship of a very small number of people.  Government policies in respect of First Nations in Canada, in particular the residential school system, disrupted intergenerational language transfer.  “The residential and day school system, which children were legally forced to attend, largely forbade the use of Indigenous language.  Penalties for children caught speaking their languages included harsh punishment and public humiliation.”

Statistics Canada currently lists 60 Indigenous languages across 12 language families still spoken in Canada, with the greatest diversity in BC, with 34 languages across 8 distinct language families.  The paper notes agreement among many linguists that a survival baseline for a language is that “at least one-third of the children should be learning the language to maintain its vitality”.  The 2006 Census reported only 18% of First Nations children across Canada with an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue, but the 2011 Census indicated signs of a trend towards learning Indigenous languages as additional languages amongst school-aged children.

In BC, the Report on the Status of BC First Nations Languages (2014) by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, showed only 1% of proficient speakers of First Nations’ languages in the age group under 24 years, and only 4% of proficient speakers within the total population.

The authors describe a language nest as a space where young children can be ‘raised’, in a full immersion environment, through interaction with proficient speakers, often Elders.  The first language nest in BC was started in the late 1980s, but the model is only now becoming better known and utilized, and takes a variety of shapes.  “For example, one language nest program in a Syilx community has rented a small house complete with living room, kitchen, and bedrooms.  As small group of three to six children attends with four Elders and an assistant for five to six hours per day.  They eat lunch together and then spend the afternoon in semi-structured play activities that allow the Elders to interact with the children in much the same way that they would at ‘Granny’s house’.”  The authors note, “While a language nest may operate similarly to a preschool or Head Start, unlike other programs, the driving purpose of the nest is language transmission.”

Because so few younger adults are fluent in their language, all the language nests in BC rely on Elders, some over 70, to attend on a daily basis.  The authors point out that the commitment of these Elders to sharing their languages is astounding.

The Indigenous language nest concept has been inspired by the success of the Māori and Hawaiian language revitalization efforts, which were themselves built on the Canadian French Immersion model.  The first Canadian language nest programs started in the 1980 in the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk community and in the Sewepeme community of Adams Lake, BC.  The notable distinctives of all these early language nests were “the immersion environment, the culturally-based program design and a high level of family and community involvement”.

The paper notes:  “The Government of the Northwest Territories in northern Canada, which provides support to early childhood immersion programs, reports the positive impact that language nests have had on heritage language acquisition in young children there….Communities in Eastern Canada have also noticed that children in immersion programs relate better to family and community members as they learn the positive facets of culture, traditional spirituality, and respect for teachers and elders in addition to the sounds and phrases of the language.”

The paper provides detailed notes on operation of a language nest, based on the authors’ personal experience and involvement.  In particular, they point out:

  • The need for a set of “survival phrases” and responses initially for children to memorize, such as basic greetings, yes/no answers, and simple requests like “I am thirsty” or “I need to use the bathroom”.
  • The need for modeling the language by speaking a lot, narrating even the most basic tasks and activities, which can be a culturally unnatural experience for many of the Elders.
  • The importance of speaking, as much as possible, in full sentences and using complete grammar.
  • The need for patience with the children as they begin to acquire the language, allowing them to advance at their own pace and to make mistakes.
  • The need to maintain positive and active interaction with the children. (The dominant language can easily start to creep back in if the children become bored, distracted, or disengaged from their play.)
  • The need to adapt commercial materials (e.g. posters, weather charts, etc.) by pasting over any dominant language writing with Indigenous language, or by creating materials from scratch.
  • Creating a space away from the children and the learning area (e.g. a porch, office or outside building) where any dominant-language communication between staff or with parents can take place.

The authors stress that determined and unwavering leadership is essential in developing and maintaining language nest programs, and it has been noted that it takes strong leadership to get language nest programs started in a community.  It is also crucial that all staff members must be fully committed to the immersion environment in order for the program to succeed.  They stress that the administrator or program coordinator, who may or may not be a speaker of the Indigenous language, is critical to the functioning of a language nest program, to get the program running and take care of fundraising and financial accountability, advocacy and promotion of the program in and outside the community, and to foster relationships between parents and staff.

The role of parents is also critical:  “It is parent’s belief in language revitalization and willingness to commit to language learning in their family that makes language nests successful.”  The authors stress, “Positive involvement and support from parents and primary caregivers of young children is essential to the success of language nest programs.  In addition, if the goal of the nest is to raise a new generation of proficient speakers, then language learning must extend to the home.”  They suggest regular language classes for parents as a support and enrichment to the language nest learning of the children.  They cite the example one language nest in a Nuu-chah-nulth community on Vancouver island which requires parents to parents to participate fulltime in the program, learning the language alongside their children.

If a language nest is embedded in a preschool or Aboriginal Head Start program, then it will be subject to licensing requirements, including qualified ECE staffing, and regulations which may limit the kinds of cultural activities and traditional foods that can be incorporated into the program.  Balanced against these constraints are the benefits of credibility and peace-of-mind for parents and community members and increased opportunities for fundraising for long-term program sustainability.

Community resistance to the establishment of language nests may come from residual trauma around language for community members who were brought up through the residential schools, along with fears that dual-language learning may delay children’s language development or impede their chances of academic success, and parents may be concerned if the nest looks or operates differently than other preschool programs.  Education and community engagement are required to reassure community members of the well-researched benefits of bilingualism and early language learning.

The authors make special acknowledgement of Dr. Kathryn Michel, Secwépmec of Cstélnec (Adam’s Lake), the founder of the first language nest program in BC over 20 years ago, whose “groundbreaking and unwavering dedication to reviving the languages of British Columbia has provided inspiration to many”.