Yes, Immersion Education Matters

Voices are rising for Native language immersion education! Indian Country Today published this article by education anthropologist Teresa L. McCarty on September 1, 2014. McCarty, who works for both UCLA and Arizona State University, writes,

As Congress considers two bills to support Native American language immersion, including the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act, it is time to take stock. What does research say about the impact of Native-language immersion on Native students’ academic achievement? We now have 30 years—more than a generation—of data on Native-language immersion in the U.S. and beyond.

Teresa L. McCarty, photo by Arizona State University.

Teresa L. McCarty, photo by Arizona State University.

McCarty is careful to distinguish between immersion, which puts children, teachers and parents voluntarily into an environment where only the tribal language is used; and submersion, which coerces use of a new language and suppresses the mother tongue.  Immersion is not a single class out of a day at school.

 Native-language immersion is full-day or most-of-the-day teaching and learning in the Native language, often complemented by after-school and summer programs. Native-language immersion systematically incorporates Native cultural content and culturally appropriate ways of teaching and learning. Most important, Native-language immersion not only engages students in learning the Native language, but also math, science, social studies, music, art, and even English through that language. In other words, Native-language immersion is a whole program that cultivates what language researcher Fred Genessee calls “the whole child, the whole curriculum, the whole community.”

McCarty penned a 2011 study of the data linking various tribal language immersion programs and student academic achievement — a study which was originally commissioned as a policy brief for the Promising Practices and Partnerships in Indian Education (P3IE) Program Evaluation Group, under a contract from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Indian Education Programs.

Her ICT article draws from that paper and current contacts to examine the immersion programs for Navajo, Hawaii’an, Maori and other Native languages, with many informative links. She concludes:

Overall, what do three decades of research show? Close examination of the data confirms the benefits of well-implemented immersion in promoting students’ language acquisition, enhanced test performance, increased school retention and graduation rates, college entry, and more diffuse but important outcomes such as parent involvement and cultural pride.

These are not the only goals of these programs, of course, as they are rooted in Native peoples’ inherent and constitutionally and internationally recognized rights to sovereignty and self-determination. Further, Native-language immersion is a positive influence on diversity and equity in schools and society. More research is needed, but the evidence to date strongly indicates that Native-language immersion significantly benefits Native students.


Our thanks go out to Indian Country Today and Dr. McCarty for this  timely article.

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