Recovering indigenous languages

By Miriam Patterson

I began working with Learning Basket consultant Elise Packard and a small team on creating early learning programs for communities in Rwanda, India and the First Nations in North America in 2008. Since then, our projects, key partnerships, funding and even the focus of work have changed.

When we began, the question was how to impact the lives of children through their  caregivers. We wanted caregivers to understand the importance of social emotional (brain) development in the early years and to engage them in direct play-based learning with their children. As we reached out to indigenous communities in North America, our work became less directed and much more responsive. Out of that grew the Indigenous Literacy and Language Initiative. 

An ICA Canada team member describes the effort as follows: “We aim to bring indigenous language speakers together with those who, through the process of colonization, have lost the ability to express themselves in their traditional language. We are committed to working with respect, using processes of listening and collaboration, with children, parents and elders in a comprehensive and community-led approach to co-create and co-discover little and big ways to reclaim indigenous languages. We are committed to this way of being.”

The communities we worked with were looking for ways to remember and revitalize the language of their ancestors for the sake of their children. Studies show that people need to be linked to their culture in order to develop sound ideas of themselves and their communities. Our play-based and brain-based model of working with children and caregivers morphed into a community-led “language nest”. This is an immersion-based approach first used by Maori grandmothers in New Zealand to teach the Maori language to children. Here, caregivers come together to cocoon the young children in linguistic and cultural practices that are meaningful and real. This helps to build fluency in both language and culture. In many communities, the biggest challenge to doing this is finding people fluent enough in the language.

In the Canadian city of Kingston, Ontario, the community we work with has created a language nest with the few resources it has. It meets on alternate weekends for two-hour sessions. Elders take turns leading the group of children and caregivers in traditional openings, language-based games, singing and drumming, craft making and listening to teachings.

My role as a facilitator has been to guide the group towards what it wants. We’ve created several short-term and one long-term vision and plans. We’ve created plans for fundraising and for the language nest itself. More and more, members of the local lead team are taking charge of this effort. The language nest  includes children, parents and elders who speak different languages. They want to improve their first language abilities and to develop that ability in their children. It is a safe space for learning and speaking these languages. 

Miriam Patterson ( is the facilitator/guide for ICA Canada's language recovery partnerships with Indigenous communities.

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