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Language Revitalization Through Full-Immersion Education

December 21, 2018

In March 2018, three staff members from the UMN’s Department of American Indian Studies (AIS) spent a week visiting full-immersion language schools on Hawai’i’s Big Island. They learned about Hawaiian language immersion programs for everyone from preschoolers to PhD candidates with the hope of bringing elements of a full-immersion education to their department. Currently, Dakota language is offered as a two-year program, but they hope to expand to a four-year major program in the near future while also looking for ways to improve the existing Dakota major.

Full-immersion programs are rooted in the belief that teaching core subject content in the target language aids biliteracy and bilingualism. Teachers use the target language for all classroom communication to increase levels of proficiency. Consistent exposure helps language learners with pronunciation and digestion of the vernacular. One of the goals of the Dakota and Ojibwe language classes in AIS is to increase levels of proficiency or fluency amongst Native students. With as few as 1,000 native speakers of Ojibwe and 300 for Dakota, language revitalization is necessary to preserve Native culture. By implementing elements of full-immersion, AIS could increase proficiency amongst their students and support language revitalization efforts. For the full-immersion schools in Hilo, Hawai’i, the program has helped increase proficiency of Native Hawaiian students. Students are learning about their heritage and history in their native tongue.

A Peek into Full-Immersion

They visited three schools on the island: Pūnana Leo Preschool, Nāwahī (for K-12 students), and Hale’ōlelo, the Hawaiian language college. On the first day, they were honored at a welcoming ceremony led by students of all different ages, who chanted and prayed in their native Hawaiian, their faces beaming with pride for their schools. Not expecting such an organized welcome from all of the students, the three staff members were moved by the display of unity.AIS Community Engagement Coordinator Fawn Grauman-White, Dakota language Teaching Specialist Šišókaduta, and former AIS Curriculum Coordinator Brittany Anderson traveled to Hilo to research the program’s curriculum and its success. Hilo is a town on Hawai’i’s Big Island, and is the home of three schools that offer full language immersion from preschool to PhD. In Hilo, Anderson, Šišókaduta, and Grauman-White attended some of the full-immersion classes and ceremonies and connected with students and faculty. Immersion schools traditionally teach 90 percent of their classes in the target language in addition to using it during recreational activities and lunch times. Hilo’s approach is to provide young students with a strong command of the Hawaiian language so that they can teach and communicate in the language 100 percent of the time. By teaching students the language at a young age and creating a full-immersion environment, students are much more likely to retain the language. An immersion program encourages and facilitates an environment where fluency is commonplace.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” says Grauman-White, who was particularly moved by the preschooler’s active participation in the ceremony. During the greeting, the preschoolers sang in Hawaiian along with the older students as all of them stood together. “You could just see the pride and respect.” In their studies, the students feel pride in learning and subsequently revitalizing their native language. Students of all ages are connecting to their heritage and engaging with their history as native Hawaiians. To this end, the students are like explorers, learning and engaging with the long and nuanced history of Hawaiian people and culture. These young children are a vital part of the schools’ language revitalization efforts, which requires participation from Natives of all ages. The goal of these schools’ full-immersion programs is to encourage young people to learn their Hawaiian even before learning English. If the young people in Hawai’i learn and become fluent in the language, revitalizing Hawaiian becomes more attainable.

Copying the Curriculum

Šišókaduta wanted to learn about new practices that he could incorporate into his own teaching. “It was good to go [to Hilo] to see this is where we could be,” he says. “AIS has a really good program, but we want to make it even better.”

The Hawaiian curriculum uses a technique in which teachers speak in 80 to 90 percent in Hawaiian and 10 to 20 percent in English for the first year. For the following year, the classes are taught completely in Hawaiian to encourage language fluency. Šišókaduta previously taught his first-year students in complete Dakota immersion but is now considering mirroring the Hawaiian program. If he does implement this tactic, he would incorporate some English for the first year and ease into complete immersion for the second year.

Ripple Effect

Grauman-White believes that a program like Hilo’s, which encourages immersion and community bonds, is possible in Minnesota. She hopes that by developing a stronger relationship with the native community in the metro area, AIS will gain support for their programs. Encouraging students to attend events organized by the native community or researching the long history of native activism will help AIS and its students build relationships with Natives in the metro area. Additionally, the department encourages students to maintain a presence in the community by attending college or career fairs, meet with members of the community, volunteer, join committees or boards etc. This would help connect the indigenous community to the campus while simultaneously helping them expand their own networks.

The schools bring together the members of the community and students to revitalize the language which has a ripple effect. By creating a space to make speaking Hawaiian a consistent and daily practice, learning the language starts to expand beyond the classroom, extending into homes and daily conversation. Similarly, AIS creates an environment for native speakers and learners to strengthen their command of the Dakota and Ojibwe languages. Educating students and their community about a shared history and language encourages the preservation of the cultural values and practices that are worth protecting.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.