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Early childhood Native language immersion develops minds, revitalizes cultures

Learning their indigenous languages from a very young age may prepare Native American children for success in school and life, with benefits spilling over to their families and communities.

August 19, 2016


Rob Grunewald Economist, Community Development and Engagement (former)
Early childhood Native language immersion develops minds, revitalizes cultures
A child learns her letters at Lakota Immersion Childcare
A child attending Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation's (TVCDC's) Lakota Immersion Childcare program on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota learns the letters of the alphabet and corresponding Lakota words.Photo courtesy of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

Aaniin, ezhi-ayaayan?” (Hello, how are you?)

Children and teachers sing these words to a three-year-old child in the Ojibwe classroom of the Wicoie Nandagikendan language immersion program. The child stands up from his chair and places a sticker under one of several Ojibwe words for happy, sad, and angry, among other choices.

After all the children and adults take turns placing their stickers, a teacher leads the children through counting, “bezhig, niizh, niswi,” colors, “miskwa, ozaawaa, ozhaawashkwaa,” and animals, “makwa, waawaashkeshiinh, ajidamoo,” all while pointing to corresponding pictures with a colorful wand to help everyone listen and speak in Ojibwe.

For three hours each weekday during the school year, up to ten children as young as age 16 months and up to five years old are immersed in either the Ojibwe or Dakota language within Four Directions Family Center’s nationally accredited child care center. The program borders the Little Earth community in Minneapolis, a housing development whose residents are mostly of Ojibwe or Dakota descent.

Wicoie Nandagikendan is part of a growing number of early childhood Native American language immersion programs in the Ninth Federal Reserve District and throughout the United States. These programs have the promise to address two major challenges Native American children and communities face.

First, the number of first language speakers—that is, people who speak a Native American language as their first or one of their first languages—is rapidly declining. Early childhood language immersion programs are a strategy to reinvigorate language and cultural practices.

Second, Native communities face many socioeconomic circumstances that can be detrimental to healthy brain development in children. Language immersion programs can help counter these detrimental effects by offering experiences consistent with what young children need to thrive. Many children who learn their Native language and culture also have success with their overall education and well-being.

Many children who learn their Native language and culture also have success with their overall education and well-being.

Early childhood language immersion is not a simple solution for Native communities to apply, however, as immersion programs themselves present some challenges. Developing a language immersion program requires producing curricula in the Native language and recruiting teachers who are proficient speakers and trained in child development and classroom management. After children complete a language immersion program, they need ongoing support, such as opportunities to speak the language at community gatherings or attend a language immersion program during the elementary grades. Finally, while some funding streams are available for language immersion programs, combining funds from different sources to achieve long-term sustainability can be challenging.

For Native communities that meet these challenges as they design and conduct immersion programs, there are indications that the programs are both increasing Native language fluency and developing young minds in a way that prepares children for success in school and life, with potential benefits spilling over to their families and communities.

How Does Language Immersion Education Benefit Native Children? Step into the classroom at Wicoie Nandagikendan, a preschool program at the Little Earth Community in Minneapolis that immerses children in the Dakota or Ojibwe language and culture. Video by Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

Rescuing Native American languages

Native American communities have faced immeasurable hardships during the past 500 years as Europeans moved into North America. Forced relocation removed many Native American tribes from their homelands, and reservations became islands of poverty. The effects of historical trauma from the cultural disconnection and isolation have contributed to high rates of depression, chemical abuse, and high unemployment, among other social and economic difficulties.2 

In particular, Native American language and culture suffered greatly under the Indian boarding school movement. Starting in the 1860s, thousands of Native American children were removed from their families and communities to attend schools that discouraged or forbade them from speaking their Native languages and following their cultural practices. The personal stories of the children and their descendants reveal the lasting impact of this disruption and trauma.

“I don’t like to say something negative, but you know, the language was taken away by means of force, by means of being made to feel ashamed if you spoke your language,” said Jennifer Bendickson, a founding mother and interim executive director of Wicoie Nandagikendan. “My mother spoke Dakota fluently, but she would never speak it to me, because when she was in boarding school she was punished severely for speaking the language. She was taken away from her parents when she was just five years old and she never saw her parents for years.”

An instructor leads children through a drawing exercise at Lakota Immersion Childcare
Speaking in Lakota, an instructor leads children through a drawing exercise at TVCDC's Lakota Immersion Childcare program.Photo Courtesy of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

As a consequence of the forced cultural rending, the number of Native American language speakers has fallen precipitously. While some adults have learned a Native language as a second language, most first language speakers are reaching the end of life. Without changes in trajectory, many Native languages face a likelihood of extinction.

“When we first started in 2006 there were 15 Minnesota-born Dakota first language speakers. Now there are 4,” said Betty Jane Schaaf, a founding mother of Wicoie Nandagikendan.

Peter Hill, founder of Lakota Immersion Childcare, a Native language immersion program in Oglala, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Reservation, noted that “We are down to 2,000 Lakota speakers worldwide, and down to about 1,000 on Pine Ridge.”

Indigenous people in other parts of the world have also felt the loss of Native language speakers. In response to a sharp decrease in speakers, the Maori in New Zealand began a revival strategy during the 1980s. This model was then adopted in Hawaii to address the same concern. Maori and Hawaiian children start in a “language nest” program from ages three to five. According to William Wilson, a professor of Hawaiian language studies at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, children who enter the Hawaiian language nests generally don’t speak Hawaiian, but become quite fluent over the two years in the program.

After the language nest, children move into elementary schools where subject material is taught in their Native language, with English language instruction starting in the later elementary grades. Both the Maori and Hawaiian initiatives have shown positive effects on increasing the number of Native language speakers and reinvigorating cultural practices and identity.1  These approaches are now making their way to communities in North America and the Ninth District.

Building minds and futures

Many Native American children grow up in conditions that put them at risk for arriving at school unprepared to succeed. For example, in 2014 the poverty rate for American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) children under age six was 40 percent; for non-Hispanic white children in the U.S., the poverty rate was 15 percent. Disadvantages like poverty are reflected in high school graduation rates. In 2013–2014, the graduation rate for AIAN students was only 70 percent, compared with 87 percent for non-Hispanic white students. For Native children attending Bureau of Indian Education schools, the graduation rate was only 53 percent.

Preserving Culture: A Parent’s Perspective on Native Language Immersion Video by Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

Neuroscience and child development research suggest that school readiness is sown during a child’s earliest years. Studies show that the first few years of life are critical for healthy brain development—including language development—which occurs during what the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University calls a “serve-and-return” process: the infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and then an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug. This responsive back-and-forth interaction helps build neural connections and healthy brain architecture.2  Areas of the brain that regulate language peak in growth during the first year of life, when a baby’s brain can discern differences in sounds of every language spoken in the world.

While the window for learning language remains open throughout the life span, the earlier children are exposed to a language, the less effort it takes to learn, on average. Research demonstrates that when people are engaged in a language-rich environment during early childhood, they are more likely to develop peak proficiency in the language, including control over the sound system and grammatical structure.3 

Such findings have influenced the design of Native American language immersion programs, some of which include children who are just over a year old—a time when they are speaking only a few words. Program directors and teachers attest to young children’s ability to learn the language.

Recent research also suggests that children who develop dual language skills may have advantages in some aspects of executive function, or the mental processes that enable planning, focusing attention, holding working memory, and juggling multiple tasks successfully.

“We had a girl who started at 18 months and by the time she was age three she was assessed as a first language speaker,” Schaaf said. She added, “She also had a family with a number of speakers who supported her language learning in the home environment.”

Recent research also suggests that children who develop dual language skills may have advantages in some aspects of executive function, or the mental processes that enable planning, focusing attention, holding working memory, and juggling multiple tasks successfully. For example, researchers at the University of Washington discovered that bilingual children who were exposed to two languages early performed better in managing conflicting demands for their attention than monolingual speakers.4 

While language immersion can help develop language and cognitive skills, it also provides support for emotional and social development. These benefits can be especially valuable for Native American children, since many face adversity in their homes and communities.

“Both Ojibwe and Dakota languages are very relational, emphasizing the importance of kinship and that the universe is inter-relational; we are all related. Through the language, children learn coping skills and emotional regulation at a very early age,” said Jewell Arcoren, Wicoie Nandagikendan’s program director.

As language and culture are taught together, language immersion helps children understand and appreciate their culture and personal identity, which can help support them when facing challenges throughout childhood. “We can teach in our language, which is our culture. You can’t take culture away from it,” Schaaf said.

Story time at Lakota Immersion Childcare on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Preschoolers at TVCDC's Lakota Immersion Childcare program follow along as an instructor presents a lesson.Photo courtesy of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

At Native language immersion programs, the combination of fostering cognitive and language skills, as well as social-emotional skills, has the potential to help children prepare for school with long-lasting benefits for them and their communities. Research on high-quality early learning programs that serve vulnerable children shows that these programs can help reduce remedial education costs, increase school achievement and future earnings, and reduce crime and social costs.5  The Maori and Hawaiian initiatives mentioned earlier have shown promise in improving school achievement and graduation rates.6  While rigorous evaluation methods and cost-benefit analyses haven’t been applied to language immersion programs in North America, initial outcome measures and observations are promising and consistent with findings from the Maori and Hawaiian programs.

Enhancing a Sense of Self: A Parent’s Perspective on Native Language Immersion Video by Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

Native immersion’s inherent challenges

Starting from scratch

Peter Hill started Lakota Immersion Childcare (LIC) on the Pine Ridge Reservation in his house with his daughter and four other children between the ages of 18 months and two years in 2012. The plan was to add five children each year so that each cohort of children would have about four years of language immersion before starting kindergarten.

“We had very humble beginnings,” Hill said. “We started as a basic daycare with a free floating day with playing, but not much structure. Now it feels more like a preschool program.”

LIC is now one of seven programs of the Lakota Language Initiative at Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (TVCDC), a Pine Ridge-based nonprofit organization that is leading a comprehensive effort to promote economic opportunity, cultural connections, and language preservation on the reservation. (For more on TVCDC’s language-related efforts, see the sidebar below.)

Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation logo

Thunder Valley’s Lakota Language Initiative

Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation has a broad mission to create systemic change and end poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation. One pillar of its work is the Lakota Language Initiative, which comprises seven programs designed to increase Lakota language fluency. The programs run the gamut from hands-on language learning, such as the Lakota Immersion Childcare program discussed in the article, to youth mentoring and Lakota-language media production.

Learn more

As with other new Native American language immersion programs, TVCDC’s LIC program and Wicoie Nandagikendan both had to develop curricula from scratch that would enable teachers to explain subject material in the Native language and not turn to English to explain a concept or the meaning of a Native word.

“Not only are we blazing trails in everything we are doing in terms of curriculum development at LIC, it is also a matter of establishing what it means to be immersion,” Hill said.

At Wicoie Nandagikendan, lesson plans, teaching materials, and eventually children’s books were developed with help from several first language speakers, classroom teachers, volunteers, and University of Minnesota students who worked in the classrooms.

“Writing curriculum is an ongoing project,” Schaaf said. “Teaching immersion can be challenging, as teachers come across words children know in English but there isn’t a corresponding word in the Native language.”

Language immersion programs diligently train teachers for their classrooms, drawing from the talents of first language speakers and early childhood educators. Each classroom at Wicoie Nandagikendan has a first language speaker and a teacher. First language speakers are essential resources for curriculum development and assisting teachers, but usually don’t have the training to run a classroom. Meanwhile, teachers are trained in child development and classroom management, but are often learning the Native language themselves while teaching the language to children.

“I think that teaching in immersion is the one of the most challenging teaching jobs in all of education,” Hill said.

Sustaining the conversation

Once children leave the immersion setting, they need support maintaining or growing their language skills.

“We recognized that having children graduate from this program and going to the mainstream school system would result in losing proficiency.” Hill said. “Children get more language in a week at LIC than in a semester in a [mainstream] school’s Lakota language class.”

Hill is working to strengthen and expand the Lakota Language Initiative programs at TVCDC for the long term, to ensure LIC graduates can retain and build on what they’ve learned. In anticipation of the first cohort of children at LIC entering kindergarten later this year, he has played a key role in developing an Elementary Immersion Track that will launch a language immersion classroom this fall within nearby Red Cloud Indian School, which houses kindergarten through grade eight. In preparation, Hill and other teachers from LIC visited Leech Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota to learn about the Niigaane Ojibwemownin Immersion Program at the local Bureau of Indian Education school. Since 2003, cohorts of children starting in kindergarten have learned subjects in their Native language through this Ojibwe immersion program within an English-speaking school.

Lakota Immersion Childcare enrolls children as young as age 16 months and up to five years old.
To ensure early exposure to the Lakota language, TVCDC's Lakota Immersion Childcare program enrolls children as young as age 16 months and up to five years old.Photo courtesy of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

TVCDC’s Elementary Immersion track at Red Cloud Indian School will follow a similar language immersion model. Children in the immersion program will eat in the cafeteria, play on the playground, and use the bus system, just like other children attending the school. The subjects taught in the Lakota immersion classrooms will parallel subjects taught in English-speaking classrooms. Eventually, TVCDC will replicate the Lakota Language Initiative’s established immersion methods at a charter school that will be part of a planned residential, educational, and cultural development in nearby Porcupine, S.D. Hill noted this will require TVCDC to do additional curriculum development and teacher training to cover increasingly more sophisticated subjects in Lakota.

The Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians located in Hayward, Wis., has met similar challenges over its evolution. A cohort of 10 to 12 children start in an immersion classroom in kindergarten, with some children starting as early as age three or four. This is the first year sixth grade was added to the school.

Strengthening Families: A Parent’s Perspective on Native Language Immersion Video by Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

“The current sixth grade class is ranked at an expert level for junior Ojibwe speakers,” said director Brooke Ammann. “They are creative with the language; they are not like us second language learners.” Ammann and others at Waadookodaading are developing a maintenance strategy to support children’s Ojibwe language skills for when they move into English-speaking classrooms.

Children from Wicoie Nandagikendan can now continue learning Ojibwe or Dakota at Bdote Learning Center, which was established less than two miles from the Little Earth community in 2014. Bdote offers a kindergarten-through-fourth-grade dual language program where Ojibwe or Dakota is spoken for part of the day and English for the rest. The school was started in response to the growing number of young Ojibwe and Dakota speakers in the community.

Finding the funding

Maintaining an effective early childhood Native language immersion program requires significant resources. These programs have funding sources to turn to, but combining funds from different sources to achieve high quality and long-term sustainability can be challenging.

The Administration for Native Americans (ANA), an office within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, offers grants to support Native American language preservation and maintenance projects. In fiscal year 2015, ANA provided $12.8 million in funding for a variety of Native American language projects throughout the United States, many of them focused on early childhood or school-age programs.

LIC received an ANA grant in July 2014 that “saved our program,” Hill said. Bdote Learning Center also received an ANA grant to start its program. While ANA grants are a key funding source for language immersion programs, they generally only last up to three years.

Since 2010, Wicoie Nandagikendan in Minneapolis and Niigaane Ojibwemownin in Leech Lake have received funding from Minnesota’s Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Minnesota voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2008 to create the Legacy Fund through an increase in the state sales tax.

Children attending a language immersion program within a licensed child care program may have access to child care subsidies, which are provided to low-income parents who meet requirements for participation in employment- or education-related activities. Language immersion or dual language programs for low-income children can be developed within federally funded Early Head Start or Head Start programs (for children ages 0–2 years or 3–4 years, respectively). Tribal governments and philanthropic foundations also provide funds to support language immersion.

Restoring Tradition: A Grandparent’s Perspective on Native Language Immersion Video by Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

Government funding streams and grants are not the only ways to support a program. Fundraising events, such as an annual cook-off put on by Wicoie Nandagikendan and a run-walk organized by LIC not only raise money, they help boost community involvement. Programs may also turn to various forms of credit to start or expand their schools. For example, Hill raised $10,000 through the online crowdfunding site Indiegogo to finance the opening of LIC.

Language immersion efforts often develop partnerships to support sustainability. For example, since LIC is part of TVCDC’s portfolio of community-based initiatives, it benefits from TVCDC’s expertise in communications and media, financial management, and grant writing. Wicoie Nandagikendan’s partnership with Four Directions child care provides a location for the Ojibwe and Dakota classrooms. In addition, families with children who attend both child care and language immersion may have their costs covered by a child care subsidy. Meanwhile, language immersion programs for school-age children can access education funding streams as charter schools or in partnership with Bureau of Indian Education schools or public schools.

Beyond the language immersion classroom

Leaders of early childhood Native American language immersion programs see their efforts as part of a larger goal to revitalize Native language and culture; therefore, they look beyond the walls of their classrooms to see how immersion models can be adopted elsewhere.

As parents and other community members hear young children speaking their Native language, adults are inspired to learn the language and support children in their learning.

“If we can succeed in what we are doing and turn out fluent Lakota speakers, we can help other communities start their own programs. Our program will not single-handedly revitalize the language; I am very big on transparency and sharing.” Hill said.

Wicoie Nandagikendan, Waadookodaading, and Niigaane Ojibwemownin have also shared practices and information on teacher preparation and curricula with other communities considering language immersion.

“We’ve encouraged other members of the community to start programs. We did a number of trainings on how to develop a successful immersion program, for example,” Schaaf said.

The effects of language immersion also haven’t stayed within the walls of the classrooms. As parents and other community members hear young children speaking their Native language, adults are inspired to learn the language and support children in their learning.

“We have had so many parents and families tell us how happy they are when their children are bringing this language home that was forbidden or shamed for generations starting with the boarding schools. It’s creating a sense of pride,” Arcoren of Wicoie Nandagikendan said. “For some parents, it has turned their lives around and they are now exploring their culture again through their children.”

Ninth District Native American language programs for young children
Program Language(s) Age/Grade Location
Bdote Early Learning Center Dakota and Ojibwe Grades K-4 Minneapolis
Cuts Wood Academy
(Piegan Institute)
Blackfeet 5-12 years Browning, Mont.
Enweyang Ojibwe Language Nest
(University of Minnesota, Duluth)
Ojibwe 33 mos.–5 years Duluth, Minn.
Lakota Immersion Childcare Lakota 18 mos.–5 years Oglala, S.D.
Lakota Waldorf School Lakota 3.5–6 years Kyle, S.D.
Montessori American Indian Childcare Center Dakota and Ojibwe 3–6 years St. Paul, Minn.
Niigaane Ojibwemownin Immersion Program Ojibwe Grades K-6 Bena, Minn.
Red Cliff Early Childhood Center Ojibwe 6 wks.–3 years Bayfield, Wis.
The Sitting Bull College Immersion Nest Lakota 3–6 years Fort Yates, N.D.
Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School Ojibwe Age 3–Grade 6 Hayward, Wis.
White Clay Immersion School A’ani Grades 2–8 Harlem, Mont.
Wicoie Nandagikendan Early Childhood Urban Immersion Program Dakota and Ojibwe 16 mos.–5 years Minneapolis


1 Wilson, W.H. and Kamana, K. “Insights from Indigenous Language Immersion in Hawai’i,” Immersion Education: Practices, Policies, Possibilities. Ed. Tedick, D.J., Christian, D. and Fortune, W.F. Short Run Press Ltd., 2011. Also see Pease-Pretty On Top, J. “Bringing Thunder,” Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education. Vol. 14, No.1, 2002.

2 Key Concepts: Serve and Return, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

3 Newport, E.L., Bavelier, D., and Neville, H.J. “Critical Thinking about Critical Periods: Perspectives on a Critical Period for Language Acquisition,” Language, Brain and Cognitive Development. Emmanuel Dupoux, editor. The MIT Press, 2001.

4 Meltzoff, A.N. and Carlson, S.M. “Bilingual experience and executive functioning in young children,” Developmental Science. Vol. 11, No. 2, 2008. Pages 282–298.

5 Heckman, J.J., Grunewald, R., and Reynolds, A.J. “The Dollars and Cents of Investing Early: Cost-Benefit Analysis in Early Care and Education.” Zero to Three. Vol. 26, No. 6, 2006. Pages 10–17.

6 See endnote 1.