When Teresa McCarty first went to live and work in the Navajo Nation in Arizona in the 1980s as a bilingual-bicultural curriculum developer at the Rough Rock Demonstration School, “almost every child came to school speaking Navajo as a primary language,” she recalled.

To support the Navajo children in Rough Rock, Arizona, in learning English as a second language, she worked for three years with local educators, parents and elders to develop a bilingual-bicultural curriculum built on the children’s language and cultural background, “using that background as a bridge to English and mainstream content — without burning the bridge,” she said.


McCarty, now the George Kneller Chair in Education and Anthropology in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, has continued to work with the Navajo Nation as well as many other Native-American communities over the course of her career. She has done extensive work on language education policy, indigenous education, youth language and literacy learning, and ethnographic studies of education.

But today, the problem facing Native-American schools is different, she said. Although Navajo is one of the few Native-American languages that still has a good number of speakers of all generations, “even Navajo is facing rapid language loss among younger generations.”

Part of the reason for the language loss, McCarty explained, is the lingering legacy of federal Indian boarding schools, where children were psychologically and physically abused for speaking their mother tongue.

“So the natural inclination, when those students became parents with children of their own, was to socialize them in English,” she explained. “The parents didn’t want their children to experience the same hardships they went through for speaking their mother tongue.”

The loss of “smaller,” non-dominant languages is a global phenomenon, McCarty added. “Language loss in these cases is rooted in asymmetrical power relations and histories of colonization.”

But also taking root in some parts of the country is a growing language and culture reclamation movement. And McCarty’s research on Native youths’ language attitudes and practices has documented “a strong desire among the youth to reclaim their heritage language,” she said. “They’re working against huge odds. But it’s a palpable, concrete movement, and that’s very encouraging.”

There has been extensive research that shows that bi- and multilingualism is cognitively enabling, she emphasized, and can enhance academics overall.

Between 2009 and 2011, McCarty, together with Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy of Arizona State University, conducted a study of Navajo immersion at the K-5 Puente de Hózhǫ́ Trilingual Public Magnet School in Flagstaff, Arizona, as part of a national study of promising practices in Native American education. With Native-language immersion, schools like this one offer teaching and learning in the language for most or all of the day. In other words, students are learning the indigenous language and using it to learn math, science, social studies, music, art and even English language arts.

On state-required tests, McCarty found that the magnet school students equaled or surpassed their Native peers in English mainstream schools. And in recent years, the school has ranked among the district’s top-performing schools. “Equally important, the study showed that Navajo immersion brought parents and elders into the program, reinforcing intergenerational ties,” she reported in 2014 on the Indian Country Today Media Network website.

“You could say that being multilingual helps you flex your cognitive muscles,” she noted two years later. “That’s a very well-documented benefit of thoughtfully crafted bilingual and indigenous-language immersion programs.

“Even on English standardized tests — as discriminatory as the tests are for non-dominant students — children who have the benefit of immersion in their indigenous language perform as well as or better than their peers in English-only classes,” she said. “In addition, of course, immersion students are becoming bilingual and bi-literate. They’re getting something extra that they wouldn’t have in monolingual English schooling.”

McCarty says that there are many other benefits to Native-language immersion schooling, including the uniting of generations for linguistic and cultural sharing.

“One point I’ve tried to emphasize in my work is that it’s not so much language per se that people are working to regenerate, but what a language means to a community, to children’s identity, and to a larger sense of peoplehood and indigenous nationhood,” says McCarty. “Language issues are always about people, and ‘language’ is not some abstract thing to preserve in a jar.”

It’s about relationships, she said. “As youth connect with their elders and gain knowledge about their people’s history and culture, they also gain a sense of cultural pride and self-empowerment.”

This story was excerpted from one posted in Ampersand.