Federal funds could help revive dying languages in schools

By: and | May 25, 2018

Perhaps in an effort to right the wrongs of the past, the Department of Education has begun accepting applications for $2.3 million in grants that will teach Native American languages to a new generation of children.

Starting in the 1870s, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs ran boarding schools for Native American children that separated them from their families and isolated them from their traditional languages and cultures so they could “assimilate” into American society. As a result, several generations of Native Americans did not learn their ancestral languages.

In fact, the majority of indigenous languages in the U.S. have vanished—of the 245 indigenous languages, about 65 are extinct and 75 are near extinction, according to the Administration for Native Americans.

The Department of Education’s Native American and Alaska Native Children in School Program grant competition looks to support the teaching, learning and studying of native languages while also increasing the students’ English proficiency.

Preserving language

Schools in a number of states have taught Native American language classes for years. A South Dakota state grant has enabled He Dog Elementary and Todd County Middle School to teach students the region’s Lakota language and history.

In New Mexico’s Farmington Municipal Schools district, a pilot K5 program introduces students to the Din√© language of the Navajo people. The district has 11,590 full-time students, of which 3,753 (or 32.4 percent) identified as American Indian.

Complementary parent Din√© language classes will be offered as well. “Navajo parents share their sadness, explaining that when they moved off the reservation, they feared a loss of their language, their culture and, for some, their identity” says Superintendent Eugene Schmidt.

Closing achievement gaps

The grant program is also designed to close achievement gaps and to enhance practices that improve learning outcomes for Native American and Alaska Native students, such as including topics of cultural significance and drawing on cultural experts. However, the introduction of native language programs can bring backlash.

“I immediately began receiving calls from people in the community who scolded me by saying, ‘We live in America and kids are supposed to speak English,'” says Schmidt. “My response is, ‘Yes, we instruct students in English; but we also live in a world where many languages are spoken.'”