Linguicide, Language Submersion, and Language Immersion

Michael Odegaard
December 29, 2022

Most Californians are probably aware that linguicide was a central and overt policy
in residential schools throughout the continent. There are several stories of
indigenous children being routinely brutally punished in residential schools for
speaking their language. While it is assumed that linguicide died with the closure of
the last residential schools, actually linguicide actually continues as a covert policy
today. As Roland Chrisjohn stated, “Residential schools never ceased operation; they
merely changed their clothes and went back to work.” Though it is no longer as easy
to openly punish indigenous students for speaking their language, the ongoing
dominance of colonial languages over indigenous linguistic groups continues to fuel

Policy makers in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s began to experiment with integrating
indigenous children into dominant language-only public schools, but now we know
such integrated education for children has been a disaster, since such education
requires a certain degree of assimilation on the part of the child. Far too long,
educators have blamed the high dropout (or “push out”) rates of First Nations
children in public schools on the children themselves, in addition to their families,
cultures, and socio-economic conditions.
While schools can no longer get away with physically punishing children for
speaking their indigenous languages, they still practice effective linguicide by
imposing a dominant language as the medium of instruction by ignoring,
stigmatizing and effectively displacing indigenous languages. This effect is called
“subtractive language education” since it subtracts from a childʻs linguistic
repertoire, instead of adding to it. The subtle message is that indigenous language is
not useful or necessary, and that it may even hurt children to be able to speak it.
Subtractive language education is also accurately called “submersion education” to
the extent that it submerses indigenous children in both an alien language and an
alien culture; full proficiency in the dominant language is rarely achieved because
children are not given the chance to first become fully proficient in their first
Submersion education has been linked to serious mental harm, including social
dislocation and other forms of psychological and cognitive harm which leads to
disproportionately high rates of poverty, addiction, incarceration and suicide of
indigenous peoples and its resulting social, economic, and political marginalization.
The links between these conditions and the common experience of submersion
education have led linguistic rights scholars, such as Skutnabb-Kangas, to conclude
that the imposition of dominant languages as a medium of instruction is a “weapon
of mass destruction,” which fits the UN definition of Genocide and Crimes against
In many tribal schools existing core programs of 30 minutes a day of language
instruction are useless for maintaining or creating fluency, as 90 % of the school day
and all of the “real” subjects are conducted in the dominant language, sending the
implicit message that indigenous languages are not important or worthy of the same
linguistic rights as the dominant language. Thus, the internationally recognized right
to speak one’s mother tongue proficiently is violated by the simple fact that there is
generally no option for education in California in the medium of the mother tongue.
The imposition of dominant languages on indigenous children is now considered the
single most important factor in the shamefully high push-out rate among indigenous
youth who donʻt have access to indigenous language medium education, generally
known as “language immersion” education. While initial costs of establishing
immersion programs may be large, the overall benefits of immersion education
include greatly reduced social costs of poverty, addictions, incarceration, and
suicide, and increased self-sufficiency, health, and decolonization.

On this map, each red dot represents an endangered language. Read more in #AcousticsToday used with permission, copyright © @theEthnologue