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Language immersion schooling can restore 'confidence in learning'

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. ñ An Aug. 31 congressional field hearing in Albuquerque on Native languages generated a wealth of testimony, oral and written, that underscored the links between language and the survival of cultures, dual language learning and academic achievement, and federal funding and the language immersion schooling programs that have shown promising results among Native Hawaiians, the Maori of New Zealand and approximately 75 tribal communities.

But perhaps three brief words ñ ìconfidence in learningî ñ said as much as all the rest. They appeared in the testimony of Christine Sims, of Acoma Pueblo and the Institute for American Indian Education at the University of New Mexico, as she described the impact of learning a heritage Native language, in addition to English, on other academic studies. A fair amount of evidence offered at the hearing suggests that this ìconfidence in learningî may be the lost link to lifelong learning ability for Native students, and that language immersion schooling can restore it.

To compress a good deal of the Aug. 31 testimony ñ and of Indian educational history for that matter ñ into one expository paragraph: Under assault by settler policies opposed to just about any expression of Native culture, Native languages lost much of their traction in Native communities. As intended by the settler states and their federal administrators, the void in language opened the door to English and with it a kind of assimilationist psychology that was no doubt a requisite of survival in times that were hard indeed for most tribes. The threat of assimilation to Indian culture has been thoroughly recognized since then. But although in better times the Indian-controlled education movement fueled the larger drive for tribal self-determination as federal policy ñ as recognized in the title of the touchstone law, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act ñ still the few decades of Indian-controlled schooling have not thrown off a psychology of assimilation realized in educational practice, to the ongoing detriment of Native students. Learning the Native language of their heritage, alongside English as a daily reality, may restore Native students to an adaptive psychological stance, both individually and on the whole. Confidence in learning, as reflected in across-the-board academic achievement, is its public signature.

Sims touched on all this in another part of her testimony, concluding that Native priorities, local school support and congressional interest ìhave set in motion a whole new set of precedents concerning the treatment of Native languages in schools.î

But history is still with us, as recognized time and again on Aug. 31. Tribal language loss is at an acute stage. Only 10 Native speakers are left alive among the Mescalero Apache, according to Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. Carol Cornelius of the Oneida Cultural Heritage Department said that only five fluent speakers who learned Oneida as a first language remain among the Oneida of Wisconsin; two are over 95 years of age and no longer able to help convey the language, while three of over 86 years assist with eight tribal language trainees for two to seven hours a week. Amadeo Shije, chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council representing 19 New Mexico pueblos, estimated that only 20 percent of present Native languages will still be viable 50 years from now. Sam Montoya, a language and cultural resources administrator for Sandia Pueblo, noted that the scarcity of fluent Tiwa speakers there makes it difficult to create language immersion settings ñ ìsituations where a large group of people are speaking nothing but Tiwa in order to teach the language as it was traditionally passed down: orally.î

A prominent theme of the hearing was that after helping to destroy Native languages through misguided policy decisions for so long, Congress must now help to restore them while that is still possible. Ryan Wilson, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, made a direct appeal to Congress, as represented by the House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce. ìWhat weíre saying here, everybody in this room ñ and you see this huge crowd thatís come out ñ is it really, it really exemplifies whatís dear to our hearts, and that weíre in a crisis ... Weíre really saying that it [Native language immersion schooling] belongs in our schools. Maybe not in every school. But we have to create venues in our communities where this could be taught. And we have to codify, forever, a place in the Department of Education to fund these schools.î

A bill introduced by Wilson in the House, House Bill 4766, would amend the 1990 Native American Languages Act to accomplish that ñ at a cost NIEA estimates to be in the range of $8 million. With fewer than 10 working days scheduled on the congressional calendar before lawmakers adjourn to campaign for the November elections, H.R. 4766 will not become law in the current 109th Congress. Rep. Howard ìBuckî McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, acknowledged as much after the hearing. ìIím just trying to gin up some support for the next Congress. I think thatís more hopeful.î

Heading into that next Congress, McKeon; Wilson; Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M.; and Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis., the committee vice chairman, all made strong commitments to the purposes of the bill at the Aug. 31 field hearing.

ìTime is of the essence if we want to stem the loss of these languages,î Udall said, adding later, ìI believe we can all agree that there is an urgent need to protect and preserve Native American languages, and we must advance by implementing new immersion programs.î

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. ñ An Aug. 31 congressional field hearing in Albuquerque on Native languages generated a wealth of testimony, oral and written, that underscored the links between language and the survival of cultures, dual language learning and academic achievement, and federal funding and the language immersion schooling programs that have shown promising results among Native Hawaiians, the Maori of New Zealand and approximately 75 tribal communities.But perhaps three brief words ñ ìconfidence in learningî ñ said as much as all the rest. They appeared in the testimony of Christine Sims, of Acoma Pueblo and the Institute for American Indian Education at the University of New Mexico, as she described the impact of learning a heritage Native language, in addition to English, on other academic studies. A fair amount of evidence offered at the hearing suggests that this ìconfidence in learningî may be the lost link to lifelong learning ability for Native students, and that language immersion schooling can restore it.To compress a good deal of the Aug. 31 testimony ñ and of Indian educational history for that matter ñ into one expository paragraph: Under assault by settler policies opposed to just about any expression of Native culture, Native languages lost much of their traction in Native communities. As intended by the settler states and their federal administrators, the void in language opened the door to English and with it a kind of assimilationist psychology that was no doubt a requisite of survival in times that were hard indeed for most tribes. The threat of assimilation to Indian culture has been thoroughly recognized since then. But although in better times the Indian-controlled education movement fueled the larger drive for tribal self-determination as federal policy ñ as recognized in the title of the touchstone law, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act ñ still the few decades of Indian-controlled schooling have not thrown off a psychology of assimilation realized in educational practice, to the ongoing detriment of Native students. Learning the Native language of their heritage, alongside English as a daily reality, may restore Native students to an adaptive psychological stance, both individually and on the whole. Confidence in learning, as reflected in across-the-board academic achievement, is its public signature.Sims touched on all this in another part of her testimony, concluding that Native priorities, local school support and congressional interest ìhave set in motion a whole new set of precedents concerning the treatment of Native languages in schools.îBut history is still with us, as recognized time and again on Aug. 31. Tribal language loss is at an acute stage. Only 10 Native speakers are left alive among the Mescalero Apache, according to Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. Carol Cornelius of the Oneida Cultural Heritage Department said that only five fluent speakers who learned Oneida as a first language remain among the Oneida of Wisconsin; two are over 95 years of age and no longer able to help convey the language, while three of over 86 years assist with eight tribal language trainees for two to seven hours a week. Amadeo Shije, chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council representing 19 New Mexico pueblos, estimated that only 20 percent of present Native languages will still be viable 50 years from now. Sam Montoya, a language and cultural resources administrator for Sandia Pueblo, noted that the scarcity of fluent Tiwa speakers there makes it difficult to create language immersion settings ñ ìsituations where a large group of people are speaking nothing but Tiwa in order to teach the language as it was traditionally passed down: orally.îA prominent theme of the hearing was that after helping to destroy Native languages through misguided policy decisions for so long, Congress must now help to restore them while that is still possible. Ryan Wilson, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, made a direct appeal to Congress, as represented by the House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce. ìWhat weíre saying here, everybody in this room ñ and you see this huge crowd thatís come out ñ is it really, it really exemplifies whatís dear to our hearts, and that weíre in a crisis ... Weíre really saying that it [Native language immersion schooling] belongs in our schools. Maybe not in every school. But we have to create venues in our communities where this could be taught. And we have to codify, forever, a place in the Department of Education to fund these schools.î A bill introduced by Wilson in the House, House Bill 4766, would amend the 1990 Native American Languages Act to accomplish that ñ at a cost NIEA estimates to be in the range of $8 million. With fewer than 10 working days scheduled on the congressional calendar before lawmakers adjourn to campaign for the November elections, H.R. 4766 will not become law in the current 109th Congress. Rep. Howard ìBuckî McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, acknowledged as much after the hearing. ìIím just trying to gin up some support for the next Congress. I think thatís more hopeful.îHeading into that next Congress, McKeon; Wilson; Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M.; and Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis., the committee vice chairman, all made strong commitments to the purposes of the bill at the Aug. 31 field hearing.ìTime is of the essence if we want to stem the loss of these languages,î Udall said, adding later, ìI believe we can all agree that there is an urgent need to protect and preserve Native American languages, and we must advance by implementing new immersion programs.î