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Native language fluency enhances academic success

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Fluency in American Indian or Indigenous languages may improve the general academic success of Indian youth, witnesses told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. However, they said, such fluency is in decline.

"Over half of our languages are still with us after all these years of adversity," said Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Center. "But unless there is radical change and success at the reversal of language shift, the next 60 years will see the extinction of 155 languages, with but 20 of the 175 remaining."

Many within Indian education and the federal government have said they believe this decline is tied not only to current problems facing Indian students, but to their future success. Overall, Native American students lag significantly behind their peers in educational performance. They rank lowest in many important categories, such as reading and dropout rates.

The Department of Education reports that 48 percent of American Indian fourth graders scored "at or above the basic level" on a 1994 national reading assessment test, compared with 60 percent of all fourth graders nationwide. In 1997, the annual dropout rate for American Indian teen-agers was 5.9 percent, nearly twice the national average.

"There is strong cross-cultural evidence supporting the effectiveness of second-language immersion schooling," said Dr. Teresa McCarthy of the University of Arizona's American Indian Language Development Institute.

"Indigenous students are heavily overrepresented in special education programs, and experience the highest school failure and dropout rates in the nation. Thus, despite the transition to English, Indigenous students are not, on the whole, doing better in school. This situation has motivated creative new approaches to Indigenous education which emphasizes immersion in Native American language."

Throughout the early part of the 20th century, the federal government promoted a policy which aimed to wipe out Native languages and its use by Indian youth. It was common for Indian children to be sent to boarding schools and punished for speaking their language. After years of ignoring the problem the U.S. government finally began to address Native language loss through new federal polices at the close of the century.

In 1990, the Native American Languages Act, or NALA, was passed declaring it "the official policy of the United States government to preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native languages."

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The Senate is considering legislation (S. 2688) which would amend the law by establishing Native American language "survival schools" and "language nests." These schools would provide complete education using both Native American and English languages. The bill would support Native American "language nests," immersion programs for children aged 6 and younger. It would further provide authority for curriculum, teacher, staff and community resource development, rental, lease, purchase, construction, maintenance or repair of educational facilities and establishment of two Native American Language School support centers. They would be at the Native Language College in the University of Hawaii at Hilo and the Alaska Native Language Center of the University of Alaska.

In Hawaii, the opportunity for an education in and through Hawaiian extends from preschool to graduate school. Recent reports indicate approximately 1,800 children have learned to speak Hawaiian through immersion schooling. In another long-range study of Hawaiian immersion, student achievement equaled or surpassed that of Native Hawaiian children enrolled in English-only school.

"The University of Hawaii at Hilo began teaching Hawaiian in the 1970s and in 1982 developed a (bachelor of arts) program in the language," said Dr. Kalena Silva, director of the Ke'elik'lani College of Hawaiian Language. "At around the same time, a group of Hawaiian language teachers and speakers formed the 'Aha P'nana Leo organization to reestablish Hawaiian as a language of the family and of schools. There are now 2,000 children enrolled in such schools in Hawaii.

Another well-documented program in language immersion is at Fort Defiance, Ariz. When it began in 1987, fewer than a tenth of the 5-year olds at the school were considered reasonable Navajo speakers. Fort Defiance established a voluntary Navajo immersion program that included initial literacy in Navajo, then English and math in both languages. The program also set a heavy emphasis on language and critical thinking.

By the fourth grade, Navajo immersion students were performing as well on tests of English as Navajo students in non-immersion classes. Immersion students did better on assessments of English writing, and were substantially ahead on standardized tests on English writing, and were well ahead on standardized tests of mathematics. Tested on Navajo language measures, they outperformed Navajo peers in non-immersion classes.

Immersion programs have also been documented for the Mohawk, Mississippi Band of Choctaw, Northern Arapaho, Blackfeet, Cochiti Pueblo, Yup'ik and some California tribes.

Most language experts believe that immersion programs could not only reverse the poor academic rating of Indigenous students, but also turn the tide on the extinction of Native languages.

The Senate is expected to consider the new bill before the end of the session.