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Mohawk immersion program gaining acceptance

AKWESASNE, Quebec – An elementary immersion program for Mohawk students will be returning this fall under an innovative program that was implemented last year. The program has been a success and it has received more praise than criticism in the Akwesasne community in the past year.

The immersion program is for students in first through fourth grades, with a separate, less intensive program for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. Part of the program’s uniqueness is that the children are kept in one double-sized classroom, learning the language together and enforcing the one family – one nation way of life.

“It was tough in the beginning, but it got easier as the year went on,” said Margaret Peters, the Akwesasne Mohawk Board of Education’s kanienkeha (Mohawk language) specialist.

The program is held at one of the AMBE school district’s three elementary schools in the Tsi Snaihne district of Akwesasne. Teachers and program coordinators did their best last summer to turn the classroom into a home-like environment, with sofas and home decorations, which they believe is crucial to the children’s ability to pick up Mohawk as a second language to English.

“It made a big difference,” said Peters. “I think it really helped the kids learn the language on a daily basis.”

Most of the children entering the immersion program have had only minimal exposure to the Mohawk language which, like many other Native languages, faces extinction if programs like the immersion program aren’t successful.

AMBE’s immersion program was first implemented in 1995 with some success stories, but none as profound as this year. Children have begun to converse with one another in Mohawk, and parents and community members have been nothing short of impressed by the fluency that is emerging.

A video produced by Peters through AMBE was made specifically to show how the students use the language with little need for translation during the day. The video features classroom footage, a music video and other clips that illustrate what’s going on at AMBE’s Mohawk immersion program.

“We wanted to show that our students are speaking the Mohawk language,” Peters said. “We’re showing that. They are speaking and using the Mohawk language.”

A typical day of school for students in the immersion program begins with the traditional Mohawk opening address. Students sit as they would in a Mohawk longhouse, with boys on one side and girls on another, according to clan. As is the tradition of the longhouse, the girls choose which boy will be the speaker.

Several teachers assigned to the immersion program converse with each other and the students in Mohawk, teaching them the same subjects being learned by the non-immersion program students. Whenever possible, culture is incorporated into the lesson plan, as culture and language go hand in hand, Peters said. For instance, everyone in the school is required to have a few minutes of physical activity at the start of each day. In the immersion classroom, this time is spent doing traditional social dancing.

“There’s culture consistently going on in our classroom,” Peters said.

In the past year, the way the immersion program is viewed has changed and it has earned more and more respect in the school system and with community members and parents.

“The attitude is getting better and teachers are noticing that these kids are speaking Mohawk,” Peters said.

The program still faces opposition from some parents who fear their child will be behind academically by being in an immersion program, a belief with which Peters strongly disagrees.

“The fact that they’re learning two languages already puts them ahead,” she said. “They’re becoming bilingual.”

Other children in the community have completed immersion programs within the AMBE district or at the Akwesasne Freedom School – a Mohawk immersion school – and have proven that academic success is just as attainable for them as for English-language students. Many have gone on to college where they have continued to succeed, and a number of them have returned to the community to pass the language on to other children in immersion programs.

“For a long time the speaking skills of Kanienkehaka students have been criticized because they mispronounce words,” Peters said. “The saddest part is the criticism is usually by people who are already naturally fluent in their language. People have to understand that it is different to learn a second language. Our Hotinonshon:ni languages are difficult to learn, as many adults know. It’s difficult but not impossible. The best advice I can give to speakers is to be more patient and helpful to all learners, instead of critical; and to the learners, don’t give up. Fluency is a lifelong learning process.”

AMBE’s immersion program is gaining acceptance, but is still growing and changing to find the best possible curriculum and format. Peters hopes to see the program grow to include children up to sixth grade – something AMBE is still holding off on.

“They want to see us have success with these kids first,” Peters said.

However, with growing support for the effort, more funds are made available for the immersion program to develop resources. The video showing what’s going on at the program was just one in a series Peters and others in the language field have been developing. Another video teaches viewers the traditional Iroquois social dances, and a new video in the works will feature puppet shows performed in the Mohawk language.

“There are no resources for teaching the Mohawk language,” Peters said.

Word of Akwesasne’s immersion program has been spreading, and it often receives visitors from other tribes and Native communities where loss of language is also a threat. Each community is seeking new ways to preserve its dying language and many are willing to work together to find successful programs.