The Power of Immersion and Bilingual Schools for Indigenous Language Revitalization

By Jeremy Monk
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report, along with 94 calls to action. These calls to action urged governments, Indigenous communities and all Canadians to work together to repair the harm caused by the Residential School System, and other destructive policies and programs. Within the “Legacy” section of the calls to action are two closely related topics: education and language. Their interconnectedness is demonstrated by calls to “protect the right to Aboriginal languages, including the teaching of Aboriginal languages as credit courses (10, iv) and to “preserve, revitalize and strengthen Aboriginal languages and cultures” (14, iv) through Indigenous community leadership.

In addition to the work advanced by the TRC, Canada is also a signatory of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Therefore, there is a clear mandate for Indigenous language education reform Canada-wide, which would allow for Indigenous communities to teach and revitalize their languages through immersion or bilingual curricula and language courses.

The eradication of Indigenous languages was a vital part of the Canadian government’s two-century long plan of assimilating Indigenous peoples. Language revitalization can be a catalyst for reconciliation and a way to strengthen Indigenous cultural rights and agency. As the federal government works with Indigenous communities to fund and enact effective legislation for language revitalization projects, Indigenous language education programs may be one of the best ways to advance these efforts. Early childhood Indigenous language programs and Indigenous instruction in primary and secondary schools, provide a real opportunity to protect languages and empower the next generation of Indigenous children.

Internationally, the use of the mother-tongue language for instruction has proven to have meaningful benefits. Dr. Carol Benson, a leading researcher on language of instruction, curriculum and education development, argues that mother-tongue based bilingual programs offer significant pedagogical advantages for students coming from numerous social and linguistic contexts. In addition, immersion or bilingual early childhood education can improve children’s confidence and increase learning in subsequent years of schooling. The most recent report by the International Commission on Financing Education Opportunity, titled “The Learning Generation“, presents evidence that teaching in students’ mother-tongue or in a bilingual setting was the most efficient and cost-effective practice for increasing access to education, learning outcomes, and self-confidence.

Some Indigenous communities in Canada are seeing the promising results of these initiatives. A prominent example is Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey (MK) in Nova Scotia. MK is the educational authority of the Mi’kmaw community which works to improve language immersion efforts in all of the twelve member-communities’ schools. MK aims to revitalize the Mi’kmaq language by providing language courses in community centres, developing a Mi’kmaq dictionary, and partnering with universities to create certificates in teaching immersion. MK’s results are outstanding. Since 2009, high school graduation rates have reached nearly 90% each year, 35% higher than the average of First Nations students. Additionally, numeracy and literacy rates have increased substantially, more than 500 graduates are enrolling in post-secondary institutions yearly, and Mi’kmaq language resources continue to grow.

MK is leading the way for other similar initiatives coast to coast. In Ontario, Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawénna delivers Mohawk language and culture programming at numerous local institutions. The program provides language immersion programs for preschool and primary school children. While there are no specific results on its educational impact yet, the program generates significant inter-generational language transmission, ultimately reviving the language.

The Wikwemikong Board of Education on Manitoulin Island is incorporating Anishinabe world views into the community’s preschools and primary schools. This has proven to have numerous benefits for the community. According to the Wikwemikong Board of Education, the community boasts a high graduation rate and many students move on to post-secondary institutions. In British Columbia, the B.C. Language Initiative (BCLI), a program of the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, supports Indigenous communities working to revitalize their language. The two main focuses of the BCLI are immersion programs and curriculum development in preschools.       

Education programs like the ones mentioned above can have lasting positive impacts on Indigenous communities and Canadian society. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission showed that it will take all Canadians to mend the wounds of the Residential School System. As a growing number of Indigenous communities regain control of their education systems, we, as Canadians, are taking a small, but important step towards reconciliation.

For those interested in other Indigenous language education and language revitalization efforts, check out FEL CanadaThe Endangered Languages Project, or the work of Dr. Onowa McIvor and Dr. Lorna Williams at the University of Victoria.