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I’m a first-time poster to this forum, although I’ve spent a lot of time reading other people’s queries and responses. I was going to try to make this question short and to the point, but I’m not sure what level of detail will be helpful, and since my situation is little unusual, I’ll err on the side of more. I apologize in advance for the length. If you want to skip the background and get to the main question, skip down to the “———————–“.

I live on an Indian reservation in South Dakota, United States. I am non-Native (white), and originally from a different part of the country, but I have lived out here and worked (as a teacher) for over ten years now. Over the course of my time out here, I have become fluent in the Lakota language. This was no easy feat. The language – like pretty much all North American indigenous languages – is in a severe decline. The number of fluent speakers below the age of 30 is so small, that it barely warrants a mention. I only know of two kids under ten years old (hopefully there are a couple more out there?) who can actually speak fluently, as opposed to simply understanding (which is slightly less rare). The average age of a speaker is 65, which is older than the life expectancy out here. So…not very encouraging demographics.

But it is a beautiful language, and I love speaking it. I am able to use it on a daily basis with fluent speakers that I am friends with. (On the positive side, Lakota speakers over, say, 40 are not uncommon.) I kind of stick out, because for a white person to speak the language is rare in this day and age. I have only ever met two other non-Natives who were truly fluent, and only a couple more who learned it as adult second language learners at all. Because the language is dying out, it is hard to find situations to use it (unless you really seek out opportunities). English is spoken everywhere – in the stores, the medical clinics, the tribal offices, etc. etc. I have even gone to traditional ceremonies where hardly anyone is a fluent speaker. Another obstacle is that the language is utterly unrelated to English, and so there are no cognates for the learner to latch on to. Indeed, there are people who have lived out here their whole lives that hardly know a dozen words. The reason I mention this is that I often feel that I am navigating uncharted waters since my “cohort” is extremely small.

Over the course of learning the language and becoming close to many in the fluent-speaking community, I have really become interested in language revitalization. I have taught Lakota at the local high school level for a couple of years now, and have collaborated with others on projects such as getting a successful language immersion program off the ground (overdue, but a ways from becoming a reality). In the meantime, I have become a father. By the time this happened, I had thought long and hard, for many years in fact, about whether or not I should teach my child Lakota. But by the time she arrived, there was no doubt in my mind that I would. For one thing, as a language activist, I needed to “walk my walk” (how many other people had I pestered to speak Lakota to their children at home?). And like I said, I find it to be a rich and beautiful language, that encapsulates a unique worldview. I should mention also that I was raised bilingually. My mother spoke only French to me (she was fluent, although not a native speaker), and I think this really benefited me in a number of ways. My wife is also non-Indian, and (self-admittedly) not particularly adept at learning languages, but she has picked up a lot of vocabulary and phrases this past year.

So we decided to do OPOL, and I will be eternally grateful for her support in this. Anyway, our daughter is now 15 months. She is not really speaking yet, just babbling a lot and saying some recognizable proto-words, on the side of English so far. But I have spoken to her all in Lakota from Day 1 (and before) and will continue to do so into the future. So far so good (although – many of you can probably relate to this – it can be odd sometimes to talk at someone in your second language for 15 months straight with no verbal response whatsoever…sometimes I fleetingly wonder if it will really “take” or if I’m a little crazy ). But she clearly understands quite a bit of vocabulary in both languages – I have been keeping a journal of these since she was about 10 months and started to respond noticeably.


So…here’s the child-care issue. A friend of mine has a daughter (who is Native) and she wants her to learn Lakota. Unfortunately, she hasn’t been able to find someone who can commit to spending the requisite amount of time to teach her. So we decided to do a month-long trial, wherein I would watch her daughter for four days a week, and speak to her only in Lakota. It has been challenging, and as we get close to moving into Week 4 (at the end of which, the decision needs to be made whether to continue this arrangement or call it quits). The problem is this: her daughter is three years-old (exactly), and is exceedingly verbal – in English of course. I mean, she never stops talking. She talks, she sings, she self-narrates. It is hard to get a word in edgewise. And who could blame her? She has finally mastered her first language, and is understandably proud! This holds great potential for the long term, obviously, that she is so good with language, but for now, it is a big obstacle. Furthermore, she knows I speak English (we have known each other before this, and I can’t pretend otherwise) and so it is hard to get her to use anything else towards me. As for Lakota, she knew a handful of words beforehand, but has no real foundation in it.

I wish I could have had her a year ago, when she was more malleable (and quieter), so that Lakota could have been more of a first language to her instead of a whole other language to have to learn, having just accomplished relative mastery of English. Or, if I could have her a year from now, when my daughter will (hopefully) be talking well, and she would be outnumbered, so to speak, and could also hear the language spoken by someone closer to her age. The real problem I have, and the reason why I am leaning towards not continuing after next week, is that the arrangement is seriously compromising the time that I have to speak Lakota to my daughter. I would say that having the other girl over has cut the amount of speaking I do to her (exclusively) by 2/3. And she is hearing a LOT more English during the hours when I watch the other girl than she would otherwise. Before we started this arrangement, I had hoped that the girl would be quicker to pick up the language and all would benefit together, but the opposite seems to be happening.

So……….does anyone have any suggestions for what I could do? I don’t want to throw up my hands just yet. I like the girl and my daughter enjoys her company, and I really wanted to see this work out. But the girl is an only child, and very independent-minded. She wants to decide all the activities we do, organize all the games, explain all the rules, etc. etc. Sitting down a looking at a book? Not going to happen. Flashcards or any somewhat structured activity? Nope. So the Lakota she hears is contextual, but always rather on the fly. I don’t want to make the experience unpleasant for her (after all, it wasn’t her idea), but the way it is just isn’t working satisfactorily as I see it. And I know these things take time, but I’m not seeing that many signs of progress at this point. She may say a dozen Lakota words a day (repeated directly from me), and maybe one or two are spontaneous (i.e. words that she has heard from me but that I haven’t prompted her to repeat), but otherwise shows zero active interest in learning or speaking the language.

I think that next week, I may go the whole nine yards and only acknowledge / respond to her if she uses Lakota (I can feed her the necessary words and phrases as needed). Her ceaseless English use is just such a big obstacle at this point, and that would significantly up the ante. Beyond that, well, I’m a newbie at this. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!!


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Update: The girl’s mother is going to enroll her in a local preschool this year (starting next week), so the topic is a moot point now. Sorry to bring a question that was so esoteric; it is just – as I was trying to convey in the background to my question – there are almost no people who are doing the same thing we are doing out here, and thus no one around to really ask who can give us an informed, firsthand answer. Thus, as many do, I turned to the internet!

At any rate, this experience has taught me a lot about the challenges of such arrangements!


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Hi Peter,
I have come to you question late as it seems you have already found a solution but just wanted to say that I found your story facinating and wanted to congratulate you in what you are doing.
If you were going to keep minding the little girl I would have suggested that you repeat everything she says in English back in your target language and ask her to repeat it back to you.  At least that way your little girl would get more exposure too.
Good luck


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