Education Federal File

Native Speakers

By Christina A. Samuels — February 21, 2006 1 min read

In recent speeches, President Bush has placed foreign-language acquisition at the forefront of his goals for economic growth and national security in the coming years.

American Indian education leaders say that Navajo, Cherokee, and Lakota, among other native languages, could be a part of that priority.

In a speech to the National Indian Education Association’s legislative summit in Washington last week, NIEA President Ryan Wilson said he wanted Congress to back legislation designed to help preserve American Indian languages.

No more than 20 Native languages are being passed on to Indian children. About 175 indigenous languages are spoken in the United States, most by middle-aged or elderly people, according to the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., Mr. Wilson said.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act promotes English above all other languages, he said. But immersion in Indian languages provides benefits for Indian children socially, which leads to improved educational outcomes, he argued.

Lillian A. Sparks, the executive director of the NIEA, said: “Our languages are part of our identity, our religion, and our culture. If we lose our languages, we lose a lot of what we are as Native people.”

Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., has introduced a bill that would authorize grants from the Department of Education to establish Native American language “nests” for students under age 7 and their families.

The “nests” would provide language immersion for the youngest members of an Indian population. The bill would also establish Native American language-survival schools.

“These native languages are national treasures and part of a unique heritage,” Rep. Wilson, who is no relation to Ryan Wilson, said in a statement. “These languages will not be preserved without attention and effort, and once lost, may never be recovered.”

The NIEA is supporting the bill, Ms. Sparks said, and would also like to see more funding for the Administration for Native Americans, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The 32-year-old agency provides social and economic development opportunities through grants, training, and technical assistance to eligible tribes and Indian organizations.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week