The Essential Role of Indigenous Language Immersion Education

Michael Odegaard
March 29, 2023

Recent research (Brayboy & Maaka, 2015) shows a widening achievement gap between Native and white middle-class students in key subject areas, such as reading and mathematics. Just 51% of all American Indian and Alaska Native students graduate from high school, compared with 80% of white students, and less than 10% of Native high school students complete a college degree.

Native American community concerns about the loss of Native languages among younger generations, coupled with enduring academic disparities for Native American students as a group inspired UCLA Education Professors Teresa McCarty and Michael Seltzer to conduct a four-year (2016-2020) study to determine what indigenous language immersion (ILI) schooling teaches us to improve education practice for underserved Native American students. Supported by a $1 million Spencer Foundation grant, co-principal investigators McCarty and Seltzer were joined by Associate Director and Professor of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico Tiffany S. Lee and University of Arizona Professor of Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies Professor Sheilah E. Nichols.

McCarty noted, “As one indicator of how deep these disparities run, a recent national study (National Indian Education Study, 2015) of more than 10,000 Native American eighth graders showed that almost two-thirds — 63% — reported never talking to a school counselor about classes for high school or future plans.” These dismal inequities, however, reflect the status of largely subtractive language and “weak” Native cultural educational programs. Indigenous language immersion is a promising educational innovation designed to counter these inequities. While ILI schools adhere to the same standards as traditional schooling, students learn academic subject matter, including English, by using their Native American languages, through instruction that is culturally based that, according to Nicholas, “accent the intersection between academics, cultural knowledge, and restorative language use,” and whose goals are to revitalize and sustain indigenous languages, produce academic outcomes on par with or surpassing students in non-immersion programs, and enhance students’ cultural knowledge and pride.

In contrast to the documented failure of exclusionary curricular approaches, McCarty’s 2011 review of the “State of the Field” in Native language and culture education when a primary goal is language revitalization confirmed the high value of ILI educational models. It echoed William Demmert’s 2001 notes on the importance of Native language and cultural programs “in motivating students, promoting a positive sense of identity and self, stimulating positive attitudes about school and others…and supporting improved academic performance.” Key findings from the research produced by the substantial and growing database on the role and impact of Native languages and cultures in American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian student achievement reveal:

1. There is compelling evidence that strong, additive, academically rigorous Native language and culture (NLC) programs have salutary effects on both Native language and culture maintenance/revitalization and student achievement, as measured by multiple types of assessments. In contrast, weaker, transitional, pull-out, and add-on programs lead to subtractive bilingualism and have not been found to be correlated with high levels of academic achievement. 

2. Regardless of students’ Native-language expertise on entering programs characterized as “strong,” time spent learning the Native language is not time lost in developing academic English. When provided with sustained, cumulative NLC instruction, students perform as well as or better than their peers in mainstream classes on academically-challenging tasks. 

3. It takes a minimum of four to seven years for students to develop age-appropriate academic proficiency in a lesser-used language (English or the Native/heritage language). Long-term programs that begin with a solid foundation (80 to 100 percent of instructional time) in the Native language and provide four to seven years of high-quality English instruction by the end of the program (which may entail as little as 20 percent of instructional time, as the Hawaiian data show), are most effective in promoting high levels of English achievement while also supporting learning in and of the Native/heritage language and culture. 

4. Strong NLC programs enhance student motivation, self-esteem, and ethnic pride. These outcomes are evidenced in such factors as improved attendance and college-going rates, lower attrition, and enhanced teacher-student and school-community relations. 

5. Strong programs offer unique and varied opportunities to involve parents and elders in children’s learning. 

6. Strong programs are characterized by strong investments in teachers’ professional development and community intellectual resources, as evidenced by “grow your own” approaches to Native teacher preparation and curriculum development. 

7. The effectiveness of strong NLC programs (I.e., their ability to achieve their goals) rests on the ability of tribes and Native communities to exercise self-determination in the content, process, and medium of instruction.

Last month, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego hosted my presentation on the critical role strong NLC ILI programs have in revitalizing local indigenous languages: