The American Indian Language Development Institute, now in its 29th year, is working to preserve American Indian languages by teaching educators and others how to preserve them.
Research has shown that students of color who learn in their native language and are taught about their respective cultures and heritage tend to perform better academically. That is one reason why The University of Arizona’s American Indian Language Development Institute is working to preserve and revitalize indigenous languages and to also help educators figure out ways to teach languages to others.
“Our native language means so much to us,” said Regina L. Siquieros, the institute’s program coordinator and a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. “It is much more powerful than English and helps us to better understand ourselves and to be better people.” The annual summer institute, part of the UA College of Education, is in its 29th year and will be held at the University June 4 through July 12 with a focus on American Indian educators and the classroom environment.
The institute promotes the idea that educators, parents, tribal leaders and community members must be actively engaged to avoid the loss of language and also preserve language. This year’s theme is “Creating Spaces for Indigenous Languages in Everyday Life” and, concurrently, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Languages. It is particularly important to discuss the preservation of American Indian languages now – particularly in the classrooms – because of recently approved English-only mandates and legislation, Siquieros said.
“Everything we have worked so hard for is now in danger,” she said. “But it is important for us, as Native people, to be represented in all settings, including the classroom. In the classroom, we need more support.” Another concern is the fact that most American Indian youth speak in English, not their native languages, Siquieros said, adding that the “Western society” has long pushed for assimilation rather than the type of education that enables indigenous people to maintain their languages and cultural heritage.
The institute has trained thousands of people since its inception, such as educators, students, administrators, health care professionals and others. Each year, the institute draws people from all over the United States, Mexico and Canada. This year, one person from Australia has registered to attend. Divided into two streams, the institute offers six credits at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, encouraging participants to become researcher and bilingual and bicultural curriculum specialists, as well as language teachers. “Creating spaces for language involves both creativity and determination – that is, a conviction that revitalizing endangered languages is important – and finding ways to encourage students to use their ancestral tongue,” said Mary Carol Combs, an adjunct associate professor at the UA who specializes in language planning and policy, indigenous language revitalization and bilingual education law and policy. With an agenda of presentations and field trips, participants will learn the implications of the No Child Left Behind legislation, immersion methods, children’s literature and writing, the particular needs of American Indian students, endangered languages, and linguistics and bilingualism. They will attend demonstrations and lessons in indigenous languages, harvest Saguaro fruit – a long-standing practice among the Tohono O’odham – and visit both Kitt Peak and the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum.
“This is an event in which immersion teachers can share what they do and encourage others to teach only in the language,” Combs said. She will teach a course about indigenous language and identity in films produced by filmmakers around the world, exploring whether films can transmit language and culture, she said. “We’ll be looking at ways teachers can use indigenous films in secondary classrooms, and at film as an alternative language text,” Combs said, “as a non-traditional means of addressing issues of importance to global and local indigenous communities.”