BRIGHTON — The room was like any other day care center; babies sat on caregivers’ laps and clapped along to the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and the “ABCs.” But what made this room special was language. Everything from the cartoons to the conversation was in Creek.
The sign on the door to the Creek Language Enrichment House at the Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Brighton reads “English Stops Here” and they mean it.
“The babies are learning in a fluent speaking environment,” said Marcus Briggs-Cloud, culture language instructor. “And we are blessed to have elders interact with them. It is remarkable that we can have five speakers in the room at one time. Any language program would be envious of that.”
The immersion program, which began in August, is filled to capacity with 10 babies – from 4 months to 3 years old – and there is a waiting list for families hoping to enroll their children in the class.
After only two months, success is already apparent, said Alice Sweat, PECS director of traditional language and history. Children know and use their Indian names and understand words and commands.
“It’s exciting to see them pick up the words,” Sweat said.
With only 30 to 40 fluent speakers in the community, there are significantly fewer Creek speakers compared to Mikasuki speakers in the Tribe, which threatens its survival, said Briggs-Cloud, who has been a consultant to language programs around the world. His experience with other programs confirms that the most effective method of teaching fluency is through immersion.
“It’s a now or never situation,” Briggs-Cloud said. “If we don’t do it now, we won’t be able to save this language from extinction.”
Briggs-Cloud has long been involved in language revitalization. In 2010, he addressed the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and spoke about language as identity, history and culture. He also has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oklahoma, a master’s in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School and is working on a doctorate in ecology at the University of Florida.
The Enrichment House program is tailored to non-verbal babies who learn through conversation, which allows them to acquire the correct syntax. Non-fluent adults on staff are learning Creek as a second language along with the babies.
“It’s been hard,” said Janelle Robinson, language enrichment teacher. “I have the commands and some words down, but I need to work on sentence structure. The babies are learning quickly, but I don’t know exactly what they’re picking up since a lot of them don’t speak English yet. But they all understand.”
Robinson hopes to test her newfound knowledge when she gathers with family elders during the holidays.
Because real fluency depends on usage at home, parents are required to attend an adult class once a week, attend lunch at school weekly, use words and commands at home and take their children to see an elder speaker every week.
One-on-one time is vital to the process. The children receive daily individual lesson time. Adults and babies sit on the floor and play. Children are told to get an item of a certain color and then give it to an adult. The children are rewarded by applause, smiles and high-fives.
Visitors who have observed the program include Tribal members from Big Cypress and members of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians from Alabama. Jeannette Cypress and Mary Jene Koenes, who teach language at Ahfachkee School, are interested in bringing a more intensive language program to Big Cypress.
“We grew up speaking Mikasuki as our first language and didn’t learn English until we went to school,” said Koenes, traditional preservation curriculum specialist at Ahfachkee. “They (the children) aren’t going to miss out on English; it’s everywhere.”
“It’s fascinating,” added Cypress, director of traditional preservation at Ahfachkee. “We all have the same goal: to save the language. It’s a different language, but it’s the same goal.”
The Poarch Creek, who have no fluent Creek language speakers among their 3,000 enrolled members, are interested in starting a language program for adults and youth. Ancestors of the Poarch Creek served as interpreters for the federal government in the late 1700s for settlers passing through their land in what is now Alabama.
“It’s time for us to reclaim the language as part of our historical legacy,” said Karla Martin, Poarch Creek cultural director. “It shows respect to know the language and we need to get it back.”
“Our Board of Directors is looking at programs and this is most comparable to what we want to do,” added Poarch Creek Tribal Council member Sandy Hollinger. “We would like to implement something for our children, and this seems like it could work for us.”
Briggs-Cloud hopes to continue the immersion program through kindergarten and then continue with a bilingual program in first grade.
“We have a lot of volunteers. Students come by after school and help us because they want to learn, too,” Sweat said. “I’m so thankful to Council that they are willing to help with anything we need to keep the language going. It means so much.”
The Creek Language Enrichment House is located in the former Boys & Girls Club at the Charter School. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. To be added to the waiting list for the program, call 863-824-6059.