Strengthening Indigenous Language Education in the Americas

April 15, 2014

In the Americas, an estimated 243 indigenous languages are still spoken, with 68 being spoken in Mexico alone. 

Statistics on indigenous languages in the United States indicate that of the 175 Native American languages still spoken nationwide, 125 will lose their last native speakers by 2024. The majority of non-dominant language speakers – including Ngigua, Apache, Yoremi and Wixrarika – struggle to maintain native speakers due, in part, to restrictive state and federal languages policies, especially in schools.

Recently, the College of Education featured the efforts and initiatives of two programs working to bring attention to indigenous languages and indigenous language instruction within communities and schools: Project Scholarships for Economic and Educational Development, Project SEED, and the American Indian Language Development Institute.

Both programs are deeply involved in international efforts to maintain and revitalize both formal and informal instruction in local indigenous languages, and are attempting to expand opportunities for communities to have access to education in their first language or heritage language. 

This work is supported by international studies on learning, bilingualism and identity, which find that education in a child's first language has important and positive impacts on a child's overall learning outcomes. 

Project SEED and AILDI both work to address these critical issues in different ways.    

Project SEED

Project SEED is a professional development program for indigenous elementary teachers of Mexico, drawing upon the social, linguistic and cultural resources of its educators and the UA community.

Although Mexico has many robust communities of indigenous language speakers, students who speak such languages continue to encounter schools that either reject or deny opportunities to receive instruction in their first language.

In Arizona, Project SEED focuses on building indigenous teaching resources and connecting community members with individual teachers committed to leading transformational reform in indigenous education.

American Indian Language Development Institute

AILDI has a 30-year history of providing indigenous language education to teachers, schools and policymakers. 

Committed to offering transformative teaching, critical training, collaborative partnerships and purposeful research, AILDI oversees workshops, onsite training, conferences and symposia. In addition, using traditional cultural and ecological knowledge to teach language is the focus for AILDI’s flagship summer institute.

AILDI programs are also emphasizing the critical relationship indigenous language has to traditional ecological knowledge.  

For indigenous peoples, language is the key to local knowledge about land and life. Language is what allows for full participation with the natural world. Recent global concerns related to sustaining natural resources and other ecological issues has highlighted the importance of accessing and understanding traditional indigenous knowledge.

Information for applying for AILDI’s summer program is available online.

Vanessa Anthony-Stevens is an assistant professor of practice in the College of Education and oversees Project SEED; Alyce Sadongei is a senior program coordinator for the UA American Indian Language Development Institute.