Learning from Indigenous Language Revitalization Programs

Photo by  wyman H  on  Unsplash

Photo by wyman H on Unsplash

This semester, I’m teaching the capstone class for the Languages majors at my university, and we recently finished a unit on Indigenous Language Revitalization.  While this is an important unit for a Languages Capstone Class, it is not my area of specialization, so I was excited to learn more along with my students.  While Indigenous language revitalization programs are not homogenous, and they represent a very different language learning context than my own (teaching Arabic, primarily to students without heritage connections to the language), I was struck by several common features in the programs I learned about that I think are also relevant to world language teaching, but that we too often ignore.  In this post, I’m highlighting these features and what I think we can learn from them as world language teachers.   At the end, I’ve posted the resources about indigenous language revitalization that inspired this post, please check them out for more information about these important programs! 

Community

In the programs I learned about for this unit, the community was the Indigenous nation.   The community emphasis came in a focus on language revitalization as a way to increase a sense of belonging to the community, to connect with other community members (often intergenerationally), and sustain community practices.  You might think, well, world language learners do not belong to target language speaking communities the way Indigenous people belong to their nations, and community is actually one of of the ACTFL 5 C’s.  Both of these are true.  However, I think there is a lot more we could do to recognize and emphasize the community aspect of world language learning, whether this is connecting with target language speaking communities from the beginning (even if they are bilingual communities and we use English!), or recognizing and naming the importance of classroom communities in ways that extend beyond language learning.  Classroom communities can do much more than help students learn language, they also develop relationships that can help sustain them outside of the classroom.  Seeing the strong emphasis on community in Indigenous language revitalization programs is a reminder that community is a crucial aspect of language learning on other contexts as well.  

Environmental connections

Related to community, the Indigenous language revitalization programs we learned about viewed language as a way of connecting to people, connecting to practices, and connecting to the environment.  While connections are also one of the ACTFL 5 C’s, ACTFL only refers to connections across disciplines and perspectives, and in my experience in higher education, the connections standard is usually not emphasized.  I think the connections to our environments in particular are something we could learn from—although the nature of the connections between Indigenous nations, their lands, and their languages are not comparable to the connections between world language learners and their environments, recognizing the impact of our environments on the ways we language and connect with each other is a crucial part of language learning that we lose when we simply focus on language structures.  This extends to digital environments, after all there are reasons why our language is different there!  

Critiquing language as a documentable object

Several articles critiqued language documentation practices that looked for the oldest, monolingual, most “authentic” speaker of an Indigenous language and tried to preserve their language as an object, pointing out that languages change, Indigenous communities exist in the present despite attempts to destroy them, and languages cannot be separated from the community of users.  While this is again a very different context, I think it is a good reminder for world language teachers to avoid abstracting language from contexts of use, to be aware of whose language we are choosing as “authentic,” and who this may exclude.  

Emotion in language learning

There was also a recognition of the emotional nature of Indigenous language revitalization, ranging from pride in speaking one’s language, to shame for not speaking it, to remembering the trauma of how educational settings (violently) removed opportunities to use it.  While the emotional aspects of world language learning have different origins, I have written before about how we need to pay more attention to this, and not view language learning as merely logical, or cognitive, or transactional.  

So, these are some of the concepts emphasized in the Indigenous language revitalization programs I learned about that I think we could pay more attention to in world language learning.  Although Indigenous language revitalization programs are different contexts than ours, we can learn from some of the shared concepts they emphasize to improve our own programs.  Below, I’m linking the resources I used in class as well as some that didn’t make the cut for class but I learned from while reading them to decide.  Please consult these for more information on these important programs!

Resources

Lingthusiasm Podcast: Making books and tools to speak Chatino

Lingthusiasm Podcast: Pop Culture in Cook Islands Maori

National Coalition of Native American Language Schools and Programs

Indigenous Millenials Share Their Journey of Language Reclamation

Davis, J. L. (2017). Resisting rhetorics of language endangerment: Reclamation through Indigenous language survivance. Language documentation and description, 14, 37-58. 

Lee, T. S. (2016). The home-school-community interface in language revitalization in the USA and Canada. Indigenous language revitalization in the Americas, 99-115. 

McCarty, T. L., Nicholas, S. E., Chew, K. A. B., Diaz, N. G., Leonard, W. Y., & White, L. (2018). Hear our languages, hear our voices: Storywork as theory and Praxis in Indigenous-language reclamation. Daedalus, 147 , 160-172.

Taff, A., Chee, M., Hall, J., Hall, M. Y. D., Martin, K. N., & Johnston, A. (2018). Indigenous Language Use Impacts Wellness. In Regh, K.L. & Campbell, L. (Eds). The Oxford Handbook of Endangered Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.