Teaching native languages

Inviting elders into classes broadens cultural offerings

Colorado’s Native American culture is an important underpinning of the state’s identity, both in terms of the rich legacy past inhabitants have left as well as the tribal communities that thrive today. Language is a fundamental component of that culture, which spans many tribal populations in the state, and as such is an appropriate focus for state education efforts.

A measure passed by the Colorado Senate Education Committee last week recognizes the importance of Native American languages, as well as the scarcity of teachers available to pass on that essential cultural heritage. Senate Bill 57 would allow school districts to hire fluent native-language speakers to teach their language without having to go through full teacher licensure requirements. Sponsored by state Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, the measure would pair these native-language speakers with a licensed language teacher to ensure proper educational protocols are accounted for while encouraging a significant cultural connection.

Williams’ measure is modeled on similar programs in Hawaii and Montana, where students can receive credit for learning native languages in school, provided the classes meet district and state requirements. Denver Public Schools, which has a large Lakota population, has a similar program, as well. According to the Montana measure, just 34 percent of the nation’s 210 indigenous languages are being taught to children as first languages – a figure that has troubling implications for cultural awareness and education. Schools are an appropriate venue for working to counter that trend.

By extending the native-language offerings across the state, Southwest Colorado schools have an opportunity to emphasize for their students the region’s rich cultural heritage. Doing so would be particularly valuable for Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Navajo students who may not otherwise have access to their tribes’ language history. Williams’ measure would open the door for tribal elders who carry language knowledge, but not necessarily teaching credentials, to share with all students the history that language imparts. Doing so provides an opportunity for schools to broaden and deepen their students’ cultural experience and connection to an important part of the region’s identity.

By linking the native speakers with language teachers who meet traditional teaching requirements, SB 57 helps ensure that students’ classroom experience will meet the state’s standards for language education. Maintaining adequate academic rigor will be an important component of the measure’s successful implementation if it is approved, so that credit extended for the language courses is earned in keeping with state criteria. The teacher-partner model is a reasonable approach that recognizes both the importance of language education as well as the limited availability of native-language speakers among the state’s teachers.

Williams’ measure will be sponsored in the House by Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, and the benefits extend beyond the words that students will learn. Language is as much a communicator of culture as it is the thoughts and ideas of the speaker, and in teaching native languages, educators offer more than nouns and verbs. Senate Bill 57 can do much to build valuable connections between and among cultures, generations and students of different backgrounds. There is inestimable worth in that effort and all that it can yield. Williams and Brown should be commended for advocating the measure, and the Colorado Legislature should approve SB 57.