When it comes to language learning, young children’s abilities are unparalleled. Their well-documented capacity to quickly acquire a language’s structures — whether that be the structures of their first language or otherwise — makes them particularly critical to language revitalization efforts. After all, if the youngest generation isn’t speaking a given language, it’s unlikely that the language will remain spoken for much longer.
To promote language revitalization efforts among Native American communities and better understand the role children can play in such projects, the University of New Mexico (UNM) announced Tuesday that it’s launched the Indigenous Child Language Research Center. The center — which UNM claims to be the “first of its kind” — will work with scholars, policymakers, and educators to study all things concerning child language acquisition, with a distinct focus on Indigenous language communities.
“We hope the Indigenous Child Language Research Center will contribute to studies on child language development and promote collaboration among stakeholders, scholars, and language professionals on Indigenous child language projects,” said Dr. Melvatha Chee, a professor of linguistics at UNM.
Diné, also commonly referred to as Navajo, is the most widely spoken Native American language in the United States, with roughly 120,000 speakers. That said, the number of children speaking and using the language has been on the decline, as a result of decades of linguistic suppression.
“Children hold the future of their languages in their hands,” Chee said. “When children are no longer speaking their Indigenous languages, those languages will cease to thrive among speakers.”
The center is a collaboration between the UNM Department of Linguistics and the school’s Lobo Language Acquisition Lab, which also conducts research on child language development. The center’s researchers will follow and document the language development of children and infants in the recently opened Saad K’idilyé Diné Language Nest, a facility dedicated to immersing infants and toddlers in the Diné language.
The timing of the launch is fitting — 2022 is the first year of the United Nations’ International Decade of Indigenous Languages while the month of November is recognized as Native American Heritage Month in the US. The launch of UNM’s center comes just a little over a year after the Cherokee Nation broke ground on the Durbin Feeling Language Center, an ambitious project that aims to serve as an all-encompassing education facility for the Cherokee language, the second most widely spoken language Indigenous to US territory.