Canada’s Aboriginal languages

Published on September 21, 2010 by Aquarius

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During the past 100 years or more, some 10 of Canada’s once-flourishing Aboriginal languages have become extinct, and at least a dozen are on the brink.

As of 1996, only three out of 50 Aboriginal languages – Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway – had large enough populations to be considered truly secure from the threat of extinction in the long run. This is not surprising in light of the current situation. Of some 800,000 persons who claimed an Aboriginal identity in 1996, only 26% said an Aboriginal language was their mother tongue, and even fewer spoke it at home.

The 50 Aboriginal languages belong to 11 major language families – 10 First Nations and Inuktitut. Some of these families are large and strong, others small and vulnerable.

The three largest families together represent 93% of persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue. About 147,000 people have Algonquian as mother tongue, the family that includes Cree and Ojibway. Another 28,000 have Inuktitut, and 20,000 have Athapaskan. The remaining eight language families account for 7% of persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue, an indication of these languages’ relative size.

Since a large base of speakers is among the essential factors to ensure long-term viability, the more speakers a language has, the better are its chances of survival. Inuktitut, Cree and Ojibway all boast more than 20,000 people with an Aboriginal mother tongue.

In contrast, endangered languages rarely have more than a few thousand speakers, and often they have only a few hundred. For instance, the two smallest and weakest language groups, Kutenai and Tlingit, have mother tongue populations of only 120 and 145 respectively.

Aboriginal languages underwent steady erosion between 1981 and 1996

Between 1981 and 1996, most Aboriginal languages experienced a steady erosion in linguistic vitality. Although the number of people reporting an Aboriginal mother tongue increased nearly 24% during the 15-year period, the number of those who spoke an Aboriginal language at home grew only 7%.

As a result, for every 100 people with an Aboriginal mother tongue, the number whose home language was most often an indigenous language declined from 76 in 1981 to 65 in 1996.

Endangered languages experienced the largest declines. For example, for every 100 individuals with Salish languages as a mother tongue, the number who used it at home fell from 35 in 1981 to only 12 by 1996. Tlingit and Kutenai had practically disappeared by the 1990s as languages most often spoken at home.

The use of Cree at home declined as well, but by considerably less than other languages. For every 100 individuals with Cree as a mother tongue, the number who used it at home declined from 78 in 1981 to 65 in 1996.

The younger the speakers, the healthier the language

Age plays an important role in maintaining a language. The younger those who speak a language, the healthier it becomes. Problems for a language arise in communities in which the average age of speakers is higher. As the elders in such communities who speak the language die, the language might too.

Overall, the average age of the population with an Aboriginal mother tongue was 31 in 1996, up from 28 in 1981. Meanwhile, the average age of individuals who spoke an Aboriginal language at home also increased during the 15-year period, but to a lesser extent. It was 27 in 1996, up from 25 in 1981.

There are two reasons why people with indigenous languages as a mother tongue are getting older. First, although fertility rates are still high, they are declining, translating into relatively fewer children. Second, the proportion of the Aboriginal population with an indigenous mother tongue is decreasing with younger generations.

In 1996, only one-fifth (20%) of children under age five had an indigenous mother tongue. In contrast, 60% of those aged 85 and over and 30% of those aged 40 to 44 reported an Aboriginal mother tongue.

Loss of an Aboriginal language most pronounced in the working-age population

The loss of a language appears to depend greatly on the stage of life through which people are going. Young children have not yet had time or reason to shift from their mother tongue to another language. For most of them, their mother tongue is, therefore, the same as their home language.

For example, for every 100 children under age five in 1981, 91 spoke their mother tongue at home. However, in 1996, when these children were in their mid- to late-teens, only 76 still used their mother tongue as their home language. This indicates a serious loss in home language, but the decline did not stop there.

As youth move out of the original family home, marriage, entry into the labour force, and a different, often large, urban environment can further accelerate their language decline. While this was true for both sexes, it was particularly noticeable among women. One reason may be that they are more likely than men to leave reserves for other locations where the chances of marrying non-Aboriginal people are higher.

Erosion of languages can be difficult to resist if an individual does not have the support of a closely-knit community and is immersed in the language and culture of the dominant society.

Aboriginal elders, teachers and other leaders are well aware of the gravity of the linguistic situation, however, and are taking steps to preserve indigenous languages. These include such measures as language instruction programs, Aboriginal media programming, and the recording of elders’ stories, songs and accounts of history in the Aboriginal language. Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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