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Language Training in Oklahoma & Florida

With only the elderly still speaking or remembering their Native languages, the majority of Native American communities in North America have greatly intensified their efforts to revitalize their heritage languages. Yet just as Native communities differ in language, culture, and social institutions, so do their chosen methods of language maintenance and revitalization. Some communities target children in preschool or elementary school, while others target young adults or adults with receptive abilities in the language; some materials are designed to be part of a public school curriculum, and some are for use by community members of varying ages and levels. Whatever the approach or type of program, they all share the urgent need to train community members and speakers to become effective teachers.

Both experienced and new teachers in all these types of programs benefit from: 1) a clearer understanding of the structure of their languages; 2) specific knowledge regarding the processes of first and second language acquisition; 3) experience with a range of language teaching methods and techniques; 4) ways to develop instruments for assessment; and 5) practical skills in curriculum and materials development in line with these.

Two training programs began in order to meet the needs for those interested in language revitalization in Oklahoma and Florida. These programs are related in that they have parallel goals, share similar philosophies, and promote languages common to both Oklahoma and Florida. In Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Native Language Association (ONLA) is conducting a series of seminars for language teachers. These seminars are guided by a team including Marcellino Berardo, Tracy Hirata-Edds, Lizette Peter, Nathan Poell, and Akira Y. Yamamoto from the University of Kansas, and Mary Linn from the University of Oklahoma. In Florida, Jack B. Martin of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, Margaret Mauldin of the University of Oklahoma, and Sally McLendon of Hunter College in New York City have begun conducting seminars for Creek and Mikasuki.

ONLA has conducted seminars in linguistics for Native American communities and language teaching methodology at different sites in Oklahoma since 1996. Florida, too, has conducted similar training sessions. These seminars have primarily been attended by language teachers who have made a personal commitment to language revitalization in their community and to improving their teaching skills. Participants have usually received no financial support and have traveled long distances to attend these seminars. The teaching and training staff have also given their time without financial compensation, traveling 600 to 1,300 miles or more and staying at the seminar sites for days or weeks at a time.

In 2002, we were fortunate to receive not only enthusiastic encouragement but also funding for the continuation of these programs. With the generous support of the Ford Foundation and of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, we were able to provide financial assistance for approximately 70 participants: five graduate students, nine undergraduate students, and non-degree-seeking participants who wanted to enhance their knowledge and skills in language teaching.

These seminars are a model of a systematic and formal approach to training indigenous peoples in linguistics, language acquisition, language curriculum, lesson planning, and language pedagogy. They demonstrate one way in which speakers of endangered languages in the Oklahoma and Florida regions are working with specialists, and importantly, with our fellow Native language teachers to create a knowledge base on which to build viable and sustainable revitalization programs. Tribal groups in Oklahoma and Florida have similar needs regarding language maintenance, but differ somewhat in their backgrounds.

Serving Oklahoma’s Diversity

In Oklahoma we find remarkable diversity in languages. In fact, Oklahoma is second only to California in the number of languages still spoken or remembered by members of different tribes. Thirty-eight federally recognized tribes and tribal towns are located in Oklahoma. There are at least 40 languages and distinct dialects that fall into 10 diverse language families. All of these languages are in varying degrees of endangerment. Close to half no longer have conversationally fluent speakers (although a few of these have small communities of speakers outside of Oklahoma). About 12 more have fewer than 100 first-language speakers; in some cases all of the speakers are extremely elderly. The Cherokee language, which until recently was considered one of the healthiest indigenous languages in the North America, is facing the challenge of revitalization, as there is no significant population of fluent speakers over the age of 40.1 Even Kickapoo, which is still acquired by many children in the home, succumbs to pressure from English.

Some reasons for language decline are common to all indigenous languages. But tribes in Oklahoma experience unique conditions, both historical and current, that affect language. First, nearly all of the tribes in Oklahoma were forcibly relocated from other areas in the 19th century. Relocation often split and weakened language communities within each tribe. Second, unlike other areas, Oklahoma tribal people do not have a land base—there are no reservations in Oklahoma. Tribal people live scattered among people of different ethnicities and tribes with different language backgrounds. Although there are cohesive Indian subcultures, most Native children grow up in white culture and must go to special places, such as Indian churches, tribal towns, or other ceremonial places, to be immersed in traditional cultural practices and, if lucky, the language. In addition, communities do not have control of their schools, and tribal members are minorities within public schools. The Oklahoma Department of Education allows Native American languages to be taught as foreign languages in the public schools, but the languages are often taught as an elective in the upper levels, not in an immersion or bilingual setting in primary school. New pressures also threaten the efforts of language revitalization in Oklahoma. A new initiative to designate English as the official language has also been gaining ground in Oklahoma; if this proposal passes once it makes it to the floor of the state legislature in 2004, it will have a negative impact on funding for Native language programs in public schools.

The majority of language programs in Oklahoma are led by grassroots organizations that struggle for funds, teachers, locations to hold classes, environments to use the language daily, and even community-wide acceptance. Despite hard times, the programs manage to stay afloat with no money, hold summer language camps, and increase class attendance. They have enjoyed successes that are immediately tangible, such as teaching an important song to children, hearing youth recite prayers, or learning how to greet each other appropriately in their Native language. The goal of all language programs, however, is to go beyond these limited situations and produce new, fluent speakers.

Florida’s Critical Need

The situation in Florida is somewhat different, as only two Native languages are still spoken. Both languages, Mikasuki and Florida Seminole Creek, are part of the Muskogean language family and are spoken by two tribes spread among six reservations. Mikasuki is spoken by 100 of the 500 members of the Miccosukee Tribe and by many of the 3,000 members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, including many children. Creek is spoken by fewer than 200 members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the youngest being 44 years old. These groups were never removed from their homelands, live on reservations where the language is still heard, and in some cases have elementary schools on the reservations where language programs have been or could be created.

While the economic situation has improved since the 1970s, many members of the tribe are still wary of outsiders. Missionaries were not allowed onto the reservations until the 1920s, the first houses were not built until the 1950s, and few individuals in their 70s or older were allowed to attend school. Most adults today were born in palm-thatched huts. In spite of the relative social isolation, Mikasuki and Florida Seminole Creek still need much attention. Mikasuki and Creek have been gradually taken over by English. In addition, few individuals can read or write Creek; a somewhat larger number can read Mikasuki. There is also little to read: no printed material exists in Florida Seminole Creek, and the only printed source on Mikasuki is a small phrasebook. The realization by community members of the critical status of their heritage languages has led to a greater willingness to collaborate with outsiders toward the goal of reversing language shift.

Eager to Learn

Participants and staff of the first Oklahoma seminars represented 14 different tribes and nine different language families: the Algonquian language family (Absentee Shawnee, Cheyenne, Delaware/Lenape, Potawatomi, Sauk), Athabascan language family (Plains Apache), Tlingit language family, Iroquoian language family (Cherokee), Kiowa-Tanoan language family (Kiowa), Muskogean language family (Creek/Muskogee, Choctaw), Siouan language family (Omaha, Ponca, Otoe), Uto-Aztecan language family (Comanche), and the language isolate Euchee. Three groups traveled from out of state to attend: Tlingit from Alaska, Omaha from Nebraska, and Prairie Band Potawatomi from Kansas. The participants also varied greatly in age: the youngest was a 25-year-old new teacher; the oldest an experienced language teacher of 80. The typical age was about 50.

In language seminars in Florida, approximately 24 Seminoles were represented, joined by six visiting staff members. The majority of the participants were Creek speakers, though a few spoke Mikasuki. The majority worked in the tribe’s Head Start program. Others worked in the tribe’s units that deal with education, language and culture, or taught privately, independent of the tribe. Most were in their 40’s and 50’s, though a few were elders.

Participants in both states varied in their positions as language specialists. Some came with direct experience and interest in Native cultures and languages; others were relatively new to the enterprise of language revitalization. Many were teachers (or would-be teachers) characterized as “non-traditional” by Western standards in the sense that they were elderly speakers, community education leaders, or language teachers outside public school systems. Some were preschool teachers and teacher assistants; some taught at middle schools, some at high schools, and still others at colleges and universities. Many participants in Oklahoma were not conversationally fluent in their Native languages; some were at the beginning stages of their language learning. These participants attended the seminars with elders/speakers. Some were language program staff and some were supporters or language advocates. And while most were not working toward college degrees or teacher certification, it is important to highlight that participants have expressed—and continue to express—the urgent need for “credentialing” their status as tribal language teachers. Financial support from the Ford Foundation and academic support from higher education institutions have finally begun to provide opportunities for such credentialing.

Despite these differences, the program participants had in common a passion for maintaining and/or revitalizing their heritage languages. They all recognized the endangered situation of their languages, and with or without the support of their elected tribal government, they were determined to transmit their language to the next generation. They also believed that being able to understand and discover the structure of their languages helped them to make sound language curriculum embedded in cultural activities and lessons. The work of the seminar instructors and the Ford Foundation support did much to legitimize the participants’ efforts and recognize the importance of their work to their learners, communities, and public schools.

Language Training in Action

The seminars were designed to provide participants with a foundation for understanding their respective Native American languages, experiencing different styles of language instruction, creating culturally appropriate language materials, and developing sequenced and thematic curricula appropriate for particular communities.

At each seminar session, participants were exposed to the major technical and practical topics in linguistics, language teaching, and language curriculum development. The topics included sound systems and writing systems; the use of language (pragmatics, or what forms of language we use for what purpose, and more importantly, the role that culture plays in the use of language); basic building blocks of language (how sounds are produced, how sounds are put together to form meaningful units, and how meaningful units are put together to form sentences and larger discourses); oral and written literatures; and development of new literature.

Discussion on each topic was followed by an intensive session on how to apply knowledge about language to language curriculum, lessons, and materials development and, more generally, to language teaching and literacy development. Participants, thus, had exposure to both the technical issues and to hands-on practical training in language teaching.

The Oklahoma and Florida seminars were configured in different ways. In Oklahoma, seminars comprised two full days, a Friday and Saturday, and consisted of two parts: “Linguistics for Native American Communities” and “Language Curriculum and Materials Development for Native American Communities.” During the year, Oklahoma Native Language Association and Northeastern State University hosted five of these seminars and an additional three-day Native Language Use Conference. Participants completed six college-credit hours provided through Northeastern State University’s Tribal Studies Program, Modern Language Department, and Department of English.

In Florida, three main teaching staff, Margaret Mauldin, Sally McLendon, and Jack Martin, conducted two one-week seminars. Mauldin focused her activities on reading and writing Creek and on production of literacy materials. McLendon trained participants in teaching methods, including immersion techniques. Martin conducted his part of the seminar as a discovery course on Creek and Mikasuki grammatical patterns.

The Florida team is backing away from teaching linguistics and theory, and concentrating more on developing specific materials that will be used in classrooms. That approach seems to follow naturally from the urgent situation in which they find themselves.

The Next Step

The seminars, as anticipated at the beginning, led to the creation of a pool of energetic teachers and speakers with skills in language teaching, literacy development, and language research. But the work is not finished—seminar participants expressed their wish to take their newfound knowledge of language, curriculum, and teaching even further.

Because of overwhelmingly positive feedback since the end of the Ford Foundation-funded seminars, a plan for continuing the work has been devised. The new plan consists of eight language-teaching modules, each of which will be covered over a two-day period at different locations. The focus and rationale for each of the modules is as follows:

1. Language Curriculum, Lessons, and Materials Development. Language programs often have too lofty goals or too many objectives to be accomplished in a designated period of time. Programs need to re-evaluate their goals and objectives, and, accordingly, prepare realistic plans (curriculum), and then activities to carry out those plans (lessons). They need to continue to produce language materials to accomplish their goals and objectives. Materials may be student-made, teacher-made, handmade, computer-generated, or found in the surrounding environment.

2. Language Acquisition. Curricula are too often made without an understanding of language acquisition with respect to learning stages. Such knowledge includes what it means to be fluent (in speaking, understanding, reading, and writing) and how to get there.

3. The Structure of Native Languages. Native American languages display their complexity in different components of their structures—some show highly complicated sound systems, others have complex grammatical systems. Yet for all, the structure of words (morphology) is often the core of the complexity, and also the creativity of the language. Teachers need to know about the structure of their languages in order to determine where and how a structure fits into the curriculum and lessons.

4. Language Teaching Methods and Techniques. Depending on the situation in each language community and the purpose of the language program, appropriate teaching methods and techniques must be selected, or new ones developed, and incorporated. Teachers need opportunities to practice their teaching in front of peers to receive feedback that will improve their teaching.

5. Assessment as an “Envaluation” Process. Some program participants may not have a consistent way of assessing what they have done in relation to their goals and objectives. Evaluation must be understood as the way to strengthen existing programs (teachers, learners, curriculum, materials, and the program-planning processes). “Envaluing” implies evaluation that gives value to all aspects of the program by using culturally responsive ways of to assess the program outcomes.

6. Oral and Written Traditions. Some language communities choose to continue to transmit their knowledge orally, but an increasing number are teaching reading and writing skills in their languages. What they continue to face is the lack of language materials, and the need to produce good written language materials for all levels of learners. Traditional oral stories can and should be incorporated into the classroom in ways that enhance language learning and cultural understanding. Oral literature, too, needs a form of creative expression responsive to today’s youth.

7. Dictionary Making. In teaching situations for the majority of communities, there may be published and unpublished word lists but rarely a dictionary accessible to teachers and learners. Lexical items (vocabulary words and smaller components that build words) may be organized in different ways for different purposes. While each should be encouraged in an appropriate place, teachers need to be able to use dictionaries as resources and create student dictionaries to fit their needs.

8. Documentation. In communities where the fluent speakers are the elderly, it is crucial to document these fluent speakers’ knowledge of the language and culture. Teachers and other language advocates can be introduced to different techniques for observing language interactions, eliciting speakers’ knowledge, creating contexts in which natural language can occur and be documented and ways to record these language activities.

These modules stem from the recognition by Native peoples that reversing decades of language loss can only occur through knowledge of language and a thorough understanding of the principles of language learning and teaching. It is crucial, then, that those with backgrounds in linguistics and language pedagogy lend their skills and expertise to communities in need, and that resource-rich agencies continue to support language revitalization efforts. In the true spirit of collaboration, Native American communities are being empowered to pass their languages on to future generations.

Overall, the teachers involved in the Florida and Oklahoma language revitalization programs are doing admirable jobs in challenging situations. They have been initiating interaction in their languages inside and outside the classroom. They have invented songs and stories and promoted the use of written language in highly visible places such as school cafeterias and traffic signs, and on everyday items like clothing. These teachers meet with more and more success in transmitting the language to a new generation of speakers. A sense of pride in what they are able to accomplish, sometimes single-handedly, has begun to replace the feelings of despair and apathy Native communities once had about their heritage languages.

Oklahoma Seminar Objectives

The purpose of the Oklahoma seminars was for participants to demonstrate:

• understanding of their respective communities (their social and cultural traditions and practices) by developing a thematic curriculum

• knowledge of the structure of their respective languages by developing appropriate language lessons and materials for the thematic curriculum

• their ability to synthesize the previous two points by experimenting with different ways of teaching languages

• their development of culturally appropriate ways to evaluate the program, curriculum, and teaching materials

By the end of the year-long seminar series, each Oklahoma participant had prepared a portfolio that consisted of:

1) short descriptions of the structure of their language (e.g. sounds and word order)

2) a mini-grammar for the noun and verb phrase in their language

3) a curriculum unit with accompanying lessons

4) lesson plans for that unit

5) materials to correspond to each lesson

6) strategies for evaluating their lessons

In addition, during the final seminar held in conjunction with the annual ONLA-sponsored Oklahoma Language Revitalization Conference, participants demonstrated innovative teaching techniques by teaching one of their lessons to their peers. This gave them the opportunity to experience both sides of the teaching/learning partnership—as a teacher of their language to non-speakers, and as a non-speaking student participating in a lesson taught in a different tribal language.

Florida Seminar Objectives

In Florida, the seminars focused on literacy development. Native speakers, native language teachers, and academic professionals were invited to attend.

The purpose of the Florida seminar series was:

1) to develop basic skills for language work through

• reading and writing

• ability to take words apart

• knowledge of language structure

• understanding of methods used in different programs

2) to create basic tools such as Teacher’s Helper/Emvhayv Emvnicv/ mahaaye Emaashaache that included

• scope and sequence for different years

• the alphabet

• vocabulary organized by semantic field

• a sketch of the grammar

• a list of grammatical terms

• references

3) to develop teaching materials

4) to build stronger relationships among those involved in language work, including tribal culture department and education department staff, and visiting staff.

Participants reviewed the alphabet, read stories, worked on vocabulary and grammar, and discussed lesson plans and curriculum development. Much attention was focused on developing materials for a new “pull-out program” in which Seminole students are taken out of public schools and taught language and culture on the reservation one day per week. Specific materials resulting directly from the seminar included an expanded and revised Florida Seminole Creek dictionary; materials for teaching literacy; homemade school books; and poems, journal entries, and short stories. Materials resulting from the seminar have been used in Creek classes at Okeechobee and Ahfachkee elementary schools. The seminar also developed a bumper sticker and laid the groundwork for future collaborative work.

1. Cherokee Nation Survey Report 2003

Akira Y. Yamamoto (, professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Kansas, has worked with the Hualapai Indian community for the past three decades. He is also continuing his work with various language projects in Arizona and Oklahoma. He has been active in bringing together the language communities and professional communities for effective and long-lasting language culture revitalization programs. Tracy Hirata-Edds ( has worked with language revitalization for a number of tribal groups in Oklahoma and has also conducted teacher training and program evaluation with the Cherokee Nation Preschool Immersion Program. Mary S. Linn is assistant curator of Native American languages at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. She has worked with the Euchee (Yuchi) Tribe since 1994, completing a grammar and now working on a dictionary with them. Lizette Peter has a master's degree in anthropology and a doctorate in second language curriculum and instruction from the University of Kansas. She oversees an urban education project in conjunction with Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools and teaches courses in multicultural education, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and language acquisition for the Department of Teaching and Leadership at the University of Kansas.

References and further reading

Cherokee Nation (2001). Ga-du-gi: A Vision for Working Together to Preserve the Cherokee Language. Report of a needs assessment survey and a 10-year language revitalization plan. Tahlequah, Oklahoma: Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

Hinton, L. (2002). How to Keep Your Language Alive: A Commonsense Approach to One-on-One Language Learning. Berkeley, California: Heyday Books.

Hinton, L. & Hale, K. Eds. (2001). The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice. New York City: Academic Press.

Linn, M.S., Naranjo, T., Nicholas, S. Yang Slaughter, I., Yamamoto, A. & Zepeda, O. (2002). Awakening the Languages: Field Reports from 15 Programs from Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. In Indigenous Languages Across the Community. Burnaby, B. & Reyhner, J., Eds. Flagstaff, Arizona: Center for Excellence in Education, Northern Arizona University. Pp. 105-126.

Peter, L. (2003). A Naturalistic Study of the Cherokee Language Immersion Preschool Project. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Kansas.

Peter, L., Christie, E., Cochran, M. Dunn, D., Elk, L., Fields, E., Fields, J., Hirata-Edds, T., Huckaby, A. Raymond, M., Shade, H., Sly, G., Wickliffe, G., & Yamamoto, A. (2003). Assessing the Impact of Total Immersion on Cherokee Language Revitalization: A Culturally Responsive, Participatory Approach. In Nurturing Native Languages. Reyhner, J., Trujillo, O., Carrasco, R.L., & Lockard, L., Ed. Flagstaff, Arizona: Center for Excellence in Education, Northern Arizona University. Pp 7-23.

Reyhner, J. Web site of resources.

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