Revitalizing Language: Exploring the Effects on Children’s Learning and Well-Being


Ruth Rouvier’s
extensive expertise in documentation, maintenance, and revitalization of endangered languages informs her work connecting children's linguistic and cultural heritage to their early learning. Recently, Ruth worked with tribal communities and EDC's National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness team to develop tools and resources to support American Indian and Alaskan Native Head Start centers in planning and implementing language revitalization programs. On October 13 and 14, she will lead a National Science Foundation-funded workshop that will examine the impact of endangered language documentation on young children. In this post, Ruth shares insights from her work studying tribal language revitalization in Head Start and Early Head Start programs nationwide and discusses the importance of the workshop.

Research shows that many languages are in peril: 46% of the world’s 7,000 languages are in danger of losing their last speakers by the end of the century (Wiecha, 2013). This has serious, negative consequences for communities around the world. When a language disappears, a vital core of a group’s culture vanishes. People who are able to reconnect with their heritage language experience a deep, reawakened sense of pride, identity, and community that builds resilience and enables them to overcome trauma. Tompkins & Murray Orr, 2011 identified a range of benefits from language revitalization including reduced suicide rates, enhanced academic outcomes, better English language literacy skills, stronger community and family connections, and improved mental and physical health. I was struck by a powerful example of these benefits as I conducted research for a report I wrote for the Office of Head Start: Tribal Language Revitalization in Head Start and Early Head Start. During a visit to one language revitalization immersion program, I met a parent and committed volunteer who told me: “This program is the only thing that is keeping me sober.”

As I noted in my report for the Office of Head Start, the impact of language revitalization can be truly profound for children, both directly and by strengthening their communities. Yet there has been little research on when, how, and why language revitalization produces positive outcomes. And, most endangered language documentation efforts—such as recording and analyzing aspects of the language, developing grammars, and creating dictionaries and text collections—have not had a primary goal to support and strengthen the revitalization efforts of communities. Documentary linguists lack guidance on how to structure their research and products to ensure they will be of use to the communities with which they work.

What is Language Documentation?

Language documentation involves working with living speakers of a language or working with materials that were generated from working with living speakers of a language.

In the past, documentation mostly consisted of written records. In the last 30 years, audio and video have also become commonly used methods of documentation. It can include sitting down with people and asking specific questions about aspects of their language, asking people to tell stories, and recording interactions and conversations. Over the years, the people who are being recorded have begun to be viewed and treated more as research collaborators and less as “subjects.”

With the support of the NSF, I am leading a workshop, “Documentation and Child Learners,” that will address these issues by engaging experts—academic researchers and community practitioners in language acquisition, early childhood development, linguistics, statistics, and public health—in sharing our knowledge and working together to bridge research and practice and improve outcomes for children in communities impacted by language loss. These professionals rarely cross paths and all bring insights—key pieces of the puzzle—into how to maximize the impacts of language revitalization for young children.

During the workshop, we will tackle questions related to the role of language documentation in formal and informal language-based activities, and the impact of these activities on learners ages 0-5:

  1. What are the benefits of language revitalization to language competence and use, academic success, and aspects of well-being?
  2. What documentary resources and language revitalization practices are known or hypothesized to result in these positive outcomes, and what are the methods for evaluating these benefits?
  3. What is our collective—academic, professional, and community—knowledge regarding these issues?
  4. How can shortfalls in the existing research be addressed? What research is needed to better understand the benefits and best practices of language revitalization and documentation?

One of the big things that is becoming clear after several decades of revitalization efforts, and that I imagine we will discuss in the workshop, is that you can’t revitalize language through just one program or solely within a school system. The most successful school-based language revitalization programs  have a strong component of family support and education. This gives children more opportunities to practice the language, the language seems more relevant to their daily lives, and their families are better able to keep in touch with the school through the language program. Many of the programs that I visited when I was writing the report for the Office of Head Start told me that to be effective they need to engage everybody: families, public school teachers—to make them aware of what’s happening in the language revitalization programs and to coordinate transitions between tribal schools and public schools—and tribal administrators. Working with this many stakeholders can be especially complex and challenging. 

This is a very short workshop, and we need to be realistic about what we can accomplish. My goal is for the work we do to be impactful, move us in a new direction as a researcher/practitioner community, and result in concrete next steps and action plans. One definite next step will be to broadly share our findings and recommendations—which will likely apply to each of the fields that participants represent. Moving forward, we will also continue to communicate as a working group, expand to engage new stakeholders and experts, and produce publications to share our thinking and work. I hope that participants form strong working relationships over the course of the workshop that lead to collaborative language revitalization projects to benefit young children, families, and communities. Interested in learning more about this workshop and its goals? Please contact me (rrouvier@edc.org) and visit this website in the spring to read about our findings.

Date: 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016 - 10:00am