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Language Nests refer to immersion education in early childhood, where babies and children are immersed in their Indigenous language or mother tongue, which is used by everyone in that environment of the ‘nest.’ Babies and small children can learn languages very quickly, much more quickly than adults, and so language nests work with the amazing language learning abilities of young children.
Language nests have sometimes been described as “Grandmother’s House” – a space where adults or Elders care for babies and young children in a home-like environment, speaking to them in their language. That way, the children will grow up being able to speak and understand their language very well. Language nests have been shown to be a very effective method of language revitalization.
History of language nests
Te Kōhanga Reo (language nests) were developed in the 1980s by the Māori people of Aotearoa (New Zealand) as part of the revitalization of their language. Using the Māori model of Te Kōhanga Reo, Native Hawaiians developed their own early childhood language immersion program, ʻAha Pūnana Leo, in 1983, “with the sole purpose of reviving ‘ōlelo Hawai’i”.
These language nests were formed in response to a critical need that people in these Indigenous communities were seeing happening regarding the loss of their language: speakers of these languages were of older generations, and there was enough disruption to the age-old transmission of language to younger generations, that they realized something must be done about this immediately.
People in the community got together, from the ground up, and decided to set up language “nests.” “Nests” were created for babies and young children to be totally immersed in the language, with the language used for all interaction. The goal was to create a place and a space during early childhood for language immersion for the babies and youngest children (usually from birth through about age 5), so that they would be surrounded by only their Indigenous language during their time in the nest. These nests were conceived as places where fluent, first-language speakers would be the teachers, to allow the youngest children to be fully immersed in the language, as early as possible, with the feeling that the earlier that babies and children can be exposed, the better.
It is widely recognized by both language communities and academic scholarship that the Language Nest model is such a positive and effective approach to language revitalization because it is so easy for young children to pick up multiple languages when they are little, and that to get children exposed to, surrounded by, and used to hearing their heritage (or target) language as early as possible is the best approach to beginning to create the conditions for fluency, for future speakers, and for the language to return.
Built from the grassroots, the Māori (Te Kōhanga Reo ) and Hawaiian (‘Aha Pūnana Leo) models of language nests have been recognized locally, nationally, and globally as success stories in language revitalization. The language nests have been a foundation for Māori and Hawaiian language revitalization efforts; and immersion programs have been formed from this base, which have allowed children to continue learning in their own Indigenous language through primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education.
Language nest initiatives have been taken up by many other Indigenous language communities in many other parts of the world. For example, the Sámi, Indigenous peoples whose homelands are the most northern regions of Europe, with the borders of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia crossing through their territories, have created language nests for several Sámi languages. The first language immersion program in the Philippines is the Bahay-Wika (Language Nest) for the Ayta Magbukon language community, in the areas of Bangkal, Abucay, Bataan (this language community has also started a Master-Apprentice program). The Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak community in Alaska have created an Alutiiq language nest as part of their language revitalization strategy. These are just a few of the many language nests around the world. These nests, and the programs that have emanated outward from these, are responsible for having created new generations of speakers of their Indigenous languages and grounded in their identity of who they are as a member of their Indigenous Nation.
What is needed for a language nest?
Language nests can be created in nearly any community, if there are people and resources to support them. Here are the basic needs of a language nest:
- Adults who can speak (or sign) the language being revitalized, and who can care for young children
- Payment for these caregivers/teachers will probably be needed. You will know what is appropriate payment in your community. See the Funding section to learn more about finding funds to support your language nest.
- Parents who are interested in their children being able to speak the language
- Think about whether you want to charge school fees/tuition for your language nest. Offering the language nest for free may encourage parents to participate, but charging a small fee may also encourage parents to take the program seriously (and help pay the costs of the language nest).
- A safe space to house the language nest: a house, a school room, any building where children and caregivers can spend the day
- Supplies for caring for young children: food, diapers, blankets, etc. Whatever is appropriate to care for children in your community, be sure to have it in your language nest!
See below for further resources and examples of Indigenous language nest and early childhood programs. You can also find more information on Indigenous language nests and early childhood programs and resources at the Resources and Bibliography section of the Endangered Languages Project (ELP) Helpdesk Language Revitalization Library on this website. If you need more assistance, you can ask a question or make an appointment with a revitalization coach.
If you wish to have your language nest and/or early childhood program included in the Language Revitalization Resources/Bibliography, or to participate in the Language Revitalization Survey, please feel welcome to fill out the short ELP Revitalization Directory Survey, or the longer Survey of Revitalization Efforts, or reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.