Preserving Hopi Language - Crucial to Children's Early Success

"Children are our future language and cultural bearers and all revival efforts must begin with the children, the very young children and their parents,” said Dr. Jeanne.

"Children are our future language and cultural bearers and all revival efforts must begin with the children, the very young children and their parents,” said Dr. Jeanne.

What was the first word your baby spoke? Was it mama, papa or was it yuuyu or taata? In many Hopi communities, Hopi is not the first language spoken by children because it is not spoken in the homes. Studies are showing that as English becomes the primary language, the Hopi language, the tribe's oral history, cultural identity and strong early literacy skills are at stake.

A recent study, the Hopi Lavayi Early Childhood Assessment Project - funded by the First Things First (FTF) Coconino Regional Council in partnership with the Hopi Tribe and the villages - aimed to increase the understanding of early language concerns that village members have about Hopi children birth to 5. This assessment also included suggestions for revitalizing Hopi language with sustainable and realistic approaches. One of those suggestions is to develop and implement a pilot language revitalization project, the Hopi Lavayi Nest Model Program, for families with children birth through 5 in one of the villages. This project will be developed in a partnership between Hopi language specialists and FTF; in May the Hopi Tribal Council approved the recommendation to pilot the project in the village of Sipaulovi.

Research shows that literacy skills learned in a child's first language are later transferred into the dominant language, and children that speak more than one language perform better in school. In addition, language acquisition with fluency is more likely if language introduction begins at an early age.

"Language is strongly intertwined with culture and identity," Russell said. "(Language) is a major force in the shaping of a person's self-awareness, identity, and interpersonal relationships, and, consequently, success in life," said Beverly Russell, FTF Senior Director for Tribal Affairs at a statewide symposium hosted by First Things First to highlight the importance of native language development for kids birth to 5 years old.

Why Hopi Lavayi Matters

"All children need to be grounded in their own language. Hopi language is so metaphorical, it actually causes the child to think at a higher level of thinking. So it allows them to become literate. That is our goal; to have them become literate early in life. Teaching Hopi is most effective when learners start at a young age," said Dr. Noreen Sakiestewa, Director of the Department of Education for the Hopi Tribe and a member of the FTF Coconino Regional Council.

"The key to reviving the language is to bring Hopi back into the home, where a child is first introduced to language. If Hopi children are taught to speak and read in Hopi, those literacy skills learned at home will later transfer into English," said Dr. LaVerne Jeanne, project director for the Hopi Lavayi Early Childhood Assessment, retired linguistics professor from University of Nevada and Hopi native from Hotevilla. "We want our children to be successful in the dominant language, and many of us were discouraged from speaking Hopi. From the study, respondents said that if we want the language to survive, we will all have to start speaking Hopi. But speaking Hopi is not enough. We must also continue to practice the Hopi way."

What can Hopi parents do?

Children do best when they have lots of opportunities to talk and interact with parents and other caring adults, and a language-enriched environment is important for all children. Research shows that reading, singing and talking with infants, toddlers and preschoolers supports early and lifelong reading success.

"Just talk to your child and talk in your own language, especially when you are outside of your own community, because that is where we revert back to the dominant language. When you are at the grocery store, talk Hopi; when you are at home, talk Hopi; wherever you are, talk Hopi. Talk Hopi all the time!" suggests Dr. Sakiestewa.

For more information, please contact the First Things First Coconino Regional Director at emajure@azftf.gov.

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