Language Activities for Urban Programs

Indigenous knowledge is the knowledge of the ages, passed down in stories, song, teachings and beliefs. The words and expressions that convey this are the basis of a people’s culture. Immersion language schools offer a powerful experience of the culture and an ideal way of learning language. Being surrounded by their language at home and at school is the best way that children can learn how to act, think, speak and live in their culture.

Language in Head Start Programs

There are some Immersion Native Language programs on reserves in BC, even in K-12 schools. However, very few Aboriginal Head Start urban (off-reserve) sites offer Immersion Language programs for several reasons:

  • The staff and families in the program may not have roots in the local territory and therefore, are not able to teach the local culture and language.
  • Children in the AHS program may come from a large number of different Nations and their parents are often unfamiliar with their traditions.
  • Sometimes it is challenging to find Elders in the urban community who are willing or able to teach at the level that an Immersion program demands.

In these cases, the staff and parents decide on the main language and culture that will be taught in the program. They also include many other cultures when the families are willing to share their knowledge and resources. Several sites have incorporated curriculum from two or more cultural traditions, especially where there are teachers and Elders available from neighbouring territories.

“Language is the most important thing for children to learn – it was lost to us in Residential School and foster homes.”
- Willie Alphonse: AHSABC Grandfather Elder, Little Moccasins AHS

for Elders:
  • Follow community protocol. For example, go in person to ask the Elder to participate in your program and make them an offering. This can be tobacco, cedar, sage sweetgrass, or an honorarium.

  • Invite Elders to visit and ask them how they would like to be involved in the program. Encourage and support them to feel welcome and confident. Show the recruiting video, The Gift of the Elders, to help Elders understand the benefits of becoming involved in AHS and what to expect.

  • Offer an ‘Orientation and Observation Time’ to help them become familiar with the class and develop an understanding of the age group’s attention span and behavioral and special needs students.

  • Provide teaching materials and help with classroom management for the Elders’ language instruction time.

  • See the guidebook Honouring Our Elders for more suggestions and tools for involving Elders in the program. (The video and guidebook are available from our Resources page.

    “I’m so proud to be in this school caring for children, caring for the future, that’s our future… preparing the children to be our caretakers, as strong as our Elders and our ancestors. One land, one heart, one spirit.”
    - Eugene Harry: Elder, Eagle’s Nest AHS & Singing Frog AHS

for Staff:
  • Hire a language instructor and provide at least 4 language lessons to staff members so they will be able to use language throughout the day, in greetings, blessings, counting, singing, etc. Here’s a Sample Language Curriculum Outline to help plan a Circle Time and activities for learning Aboriginal language.

  • Label items throughout the facility in English and the local Aboriginal language, with pronunciations, if needed. It is important that staff can read and pronounce the written Aboriginal words.

  • Help parents, staff and volunteers to learn and use traditional language by reading and pronouncing Aboriginal words with the children. AHSABC has created Language Revitalization posters for programs in BC and across Canada, available in English and French. These have a space for a ‘word of the day’ to be written in an Aboriginal language to encourage everyone to learn together.

  • Learn to say Hello, Goodbye, Please and Thank you in the local language to show respect for the community in which you work.

for Parents & Family:
  • Encourage parents to learn the Aboriginal language along with their child, by sending home a daily reminder of what their child learned today and a weekly word to practice.

  • Enlist parents to take photos at cultural events and help make books, CDs and tapes for the family lending library.

  • Provide suggestions for practicing the Aboriginal language at home throughout the day, such as using a blessing at mealtime and naming the foods, colours, counting, etc. Tapes, videos and stories can be borrowed from the centre and read together with the children.

for Mothers & Babies:
  • Start them as young as possible! Teach mothers Aboriginal language songs to sing to their infants and words to use while caring for their babies. The more they hear the language before they go to school, the more comfortable children will be speaking it.
  • Most AHS centres have made their own CDs of Elders speaking their Aboriginal language. A tape recorder is essential for capturing the Elders’ teachings. When a tape accompanies a book, a drum beat or rattle can be used to denote when to turn the page.

  • A camera or camcorder should accompany any field trip or cultural activity. Photos of the activity are pasted onto sheets of card and laminated into books with one or two words in Native language written below (possibly with the pronunciation and/or English translation). The children will love sharing these memory books with their family members, since they can recall the activity while they are reading.

  • The alphabet can be displayed with culturally relevant pictures and the numbers with translations underneath. Handouts for parents can be made.

  • Written copies of nursery rhyme songs and Happy Birthday in traditional languages (with pronunciation) can be given to families to sing at home. Here is a Sample Cree Language Curriculum with songs and words in Cree.

  • Leona Neilson, Cultural Teacher at Power of Friendship AHS, has co-authored a book for children called Niwechihaw / I Help. For more info, go to:

  • First Voices has a special online site for children to learn the Native languages of BC. Children have accompanied the Elders to the recording studio so that students are learning from other children’s voices. Check out An invitation has been extended from First Voices to all Aboriginal groups in BC to add their language to the database. See for contact info.

  • Language Master is a learning tool used in some Head Start programs. This system uses taped vocabulary, songs, rhymes, colours, numbers, etc., which the student can repeat onto another tape and listen to his pronunciation.

  • The online University of BC Library lists many language teaching tools for BC First Nations communities.

  • First Peoples Language Map offers language resources for learning Coast Salish Halkomelem languages spoken on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.

  • University of Victoria sponsors an online language program called Introduction to Hul’q’umi’num. This program offers 6 levels of vocabulary and grammar instruction. Go to

  • Secwepemc Cultural Education Society offers language resources at They list teaching tools and where to get them, as well as links to song and dance videos.

  • The Sm’algyax Living Legacy Talking Dictionary is online at UNBC’s site:

  • Go to for links to all the Native languages in North America, including Métis/Michif language resources.

  • Check with Tribal Cultural Centres to see whether language instruction packages have been created and are available for the various Nations represented by the children in your preschool.

  • Maori Immersion Program
    The success of the Maori People’s culture and language revitalization is due to the involvement of the whole family in the education of their young children. In fact, children were not allowed to take part in the Kohanga Reo or Language Nests unless their parents were actively learning the language as well.
    A Kohanga Reo is a family base with a Maori cultural environment. The purpose is to create a place where children can experience love and compassion, caring and hospitality, and family responsibilities, and are taught traditional knowledge, crafts and customs, all through the Maori language. Learn more at

  • The Total Physical Response (TPR) Method has been used successfully by many Aboriginal language teachers. This method uses 3 main steps:

    1. Listening: Teacher demonstrates and gives directions; students listen and follow teacher’s modeling.

    2. Responding: This is repeated with the entire group, small groups, and individuals, until the class can respond to directions without modeling.

    3. Teaching others: Students give directions and teach each other.

    (More info on this method is found in the Handbook for Aboriginal Language Program Planning in BC, p. 94.)