3 Tips for Native Language with Kids

Emily Washines

Tags kids, language, tips


3 Tips for Native Language with Kids

Increase Native language in our daily lives with these ways of learning and teaching.

Shiyax Mytski! (Good Morning) Greetings are a common phrase that may be used with children. In our communities, kids offer such a refreshing way to view and describe the world. Long before, I had three little munchkins, I was an auntie. When I would have those few minutes with them, I would want to describe the world around them in the language that has been spoken on this land since time immemorial. Our Native language resources may be limited. Our time and ability to teach them in between their twirling and giggles seems like the perfect time. However, the timing might be hard. I have been at a point where it feels like language is like a game of double dutch. Instead of jump ropes, we stare bewildered at the process of two languages moving in opposite directions. This uncertainty can delay action, and result in us not speaking our language with our children. We need to use our Native language right, but that doesn’t mean we will not stumble with the ropes once in awhile. Well, I have practiced for the both of us. While my jump roping might still need work, I have compiled three tips to help you work between the two languages. So, whether you are a teacher, aunt, parent or grandparent, these insights should help support your language goals.   

Tip #1

Use the traditional names of our loved ones, either their Native names or the relationship names. One way to reference this is by singing Lullabies or any song in your language. It can be one word, it can be as many words you can think of. Maybe you will make a whole new song. I could not remember the words to baby songs very well. Eventually, I just started making up the words and switching them to Yakama words. Then in my sleep-deprived state, holding the baby I started thinking about how it would be if a lullaby matched our Yakama way of life. For example, the lullaby about Daddy buying things for the baby did not really fit our way of life. First of all, why is the dad off buying everything? Where are the pusha, āla, tila, and kuthla (grandparents)?  


In the Yakama language, there are different words for paternal and maternal grandparents. Do you know the other cool part? The words are interchangeable with the grandchildren. When I would walk into a church to see my āla, she would say, “Oh, āla.” Her outstretched arms spread as her smile did. Her eyes sparkled as she hugged us close. That moment, the grandchild and grandparent can feel a special bond. To me, it feels like a title. Let me tell you, I understood what titles meant. At 6 years old, I watched court tv (my family still tease me about it). I would watch intently as they announced “All rise” as the judge entered. You want to know what it feels like when children get the same title their hard working and highly respected elder has? It feels honorable. Using traditional relationship names in our language is a self-esteem builder for our youth.

With lullabies or songs with kids, we should include these relationships to give them the best feeling in the world. We want to strengthen their connection and minds with the extended family around us. Sure, they are just sleeping babies now, but one day they will hear that word and it will feel like a field of flowers around them. In their hearts, they will know that the family believes that one day they will be elders, so why not enjoy a shared title now?

Quick note:  The Yakama word for paternal grandmother, āla, is also spelled ullah (phonetic spelling).  

Using traditional relationship names in our language is a self-esteem builder for youth. Quote by Emily Washines

Tip #2:

In our talks with our children, we need to increase the use of one response, īi (yes). This is also phonetically pronounced ee-ee. Maybe it will not feel like much at first, but, I see positive reactions from children when increasing this response. When you look closer you will find that a good amount of Native languages begin from point of consensus. We agree a lot more in our Native languages.

You can thank one of my daughter’s for this tip. Here is a bit of that story. I asked her to pick up her toys. She did not want to and went to pout in her room. I gave her a minute and went in and had a mini talk with her. I asked her if she understood. She replied in our language “ii” (yes). Then it occurred to me that she switched to our language because she sought a connection. After pouting and hearing me talk to her, she wanted to end the conversation and show that we were in agreement. The best way she knew to do this was in our language. This observation was a powerful shift for me.

I began to realize how much the impact on our mindset as parents and kids must have occurred due to policies that our previous generations had to endure with being punished for speaking our language. The abuse for speaking our language is the tip of the iceberg. Upon closer inspection, removing our language sought to remove the social and cultural constructs of language among our families and tribe. Our Native language is generally agreeable or seeks to find a connection point among people instead of just immediately criticizing, disagreeing or commanding.

My little girl understood that our language means strong family connections. With our language, I feel a sense of warmth fill the space of between us. So, say īi (yes) more your Native language. Say, yes in other Native languages. Expand this use to other family members. Agree on social media, agree on their questions in our language.


Tip #3

Use the same words in different ways. Let’s think of language as a web, where we are neurologically connecting kids’ brains with words. Imagine our words as a basket, being woven again and again around their minds. The benefits are they will have different connections with the same word. This really helps if you are building your language skills along with them. Also, with kids, there are often certain words you repeat a lot. For example, tomat-thlauke (band-aide, spelled phonetically in Yakama); is a word used a lot. If we have a new box of band-aids in the house then all of a sudden the kids have 7,000 invisible owies that need band-aids. There sometimes seems to be a one-upmanship mentality among the siblings. So, you will find yourself saying that word a good amount of times. Even though I might cut them off after the first tomat-thlauke (band-aide), I will repeat their request using our language. Another option is to learn animal names or if there is a morning routine than incorporate a word of phrase to describe that process. For example, you could say tutanik for hair. Add on ayayit tutanik for beautiful hair as you comb their hair. You could add their Indian name or just a general word for child, girl or boy.

The Silent Period

These three tips are helpful for increasing daily language use. There is one thing to note which is there is a notable “silent period” for children or new language learners. Educational consultant and author, Opal Dunn, discusses this concept as it applies to learning English. "When young children learn English, there may be a similar ‘silent period’ when communication and understanding may take place before they actually speak any English words, " Opal Dunn, 2008 (How young children learn English as another language)

As this applies to Native languages, I learned a hard lesson about the application of the silent period and transition through my kids.  Even after years of talking to them since they were infants, I was disappointed that my young kids did not seem to talk much to me in our language. I was very patient and did not force them, I made learning fun, but still only got a couple of words, here and there. One night, I walked by their room and I heard them talking in our language to each other. I stood outside and listened to their light chatter. I silently jumped excited and a tear rolled down my eye as my self-doubt was eased. So, all those days that were crammed and full of life that you only manage to speak one word to the kids, it will be worth it.

Similar age and language use

This brings to light the fact that we likely feel more comfortable talking with peers or family similar in age and language proficiency. I have especially found that when my oldest daughter teaches her siblings, they learn faster and speak faster. My middle daughter will talk to her baby brother. Each child approaches this on her own, and I often do not hear a lot of that conversation. This is true in a few languages they speak. Part of my reason for sharing these stories with you is that you will not feel frustrated and that you can have the power of language with one word at your fingertips with kids. Another reason is there is tremendous value in having other kids for my kids to speak in Native languages with. So, while I may not speak all the Native languages, I hope these tips help your language learning and teaching. Of course, I have put these tips in the context of kids, but they could be applied to language learners, even if that language learner is yourself. Shiyax kut'kut! (good job). 

How is your language learning going? Let me know if there is a way I can help. 

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1 comment

  • ii, I agree thank you for posting.


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