The Death and Revival of Indigenous Languages

The Death and Revival of Indigenous Languages

. 5 min read

Every two weeks, an Indigenous language dies. Some of the languages that have already disappeared were Inuit languages, spoken in the far reaches of the Arctic. Others had evolved in the leafy greenery of coastal Australia. While they differ in setting, culture, and phonetics, one aspect that most dead Indigenous languages share is that they perished as a result of colonization and the subsequent rise of international languages. As Indigenous languages go extinct, so too do the culture and history that they carry with them. In Canada, the government has been largely responsible for the decline of Canada’s Indigenous languages—yet, there may still be hope for them to be revitalized.

A History of Language Suppression

For centuries, Canadian government policies have jeopardized Indigenous languages. While there are more than 70 Indigenous languages currently spoken in Canada, they are largely endangered, as the majority of them maintain fewer than 1000 fluent speakers. From 1831 until 1996, the implementation of residential schools prevented Indigenous peoples from parenting, educating, and passing on their native language to their children. Government officials removed Indigenous children from their parents on the pretense that the children would benefit from assimilating into white Canadian culture through placement in these residential schools. When it became evident to parents that residential schools were not providing their children with better lives and were instead causing for trauma, illness, and even death, they were told that this was “simply the price that Aboriginal people had to pay as part of the process of becoming civilized.” The message from the Canadian government was that even a system that tore families apart and harmed children, both physically and mentally, was better than what Indigenous parents would be able to provide. Residential schools were a defining moment in a broader loss of Indigenous sovereignty, as it cemented into federal policy the belief that Indigenous peoples were not competent in caring for themselves. This belief has impacted Indigenous peoples’ ability to impart and preserve their culture and language to this day.

Forced familial separation is a hallmark of Canadian colonial practices that continues today. Indigenous children were first removed from their parents to be sent to residential schools, where they were forcibly separated from their communities and distanced from their culture. That process continued into the 60s Scoop, a mass movement in which Indigenous children were taken to white foster families and, in many cases, never saw their birth parents again. Reserve laws only exacerbated the loss of Indigenous independence with the forcible removal of communities from their traditional land, undermining the social and economic welfare of these populations. All of these events contributed to a precedent that makes it exceedingly difficult for Indigenous communities to foster the cultural continuity that is necessary for language preservation.

Today, Indigenous communities rely heavily on the federal government for basic services, such as education, which places English in an important position for the younger generation. Secondary education is less accessible to Indigenous students, who often have to travel hours to attend school. Some students in Nunavik choose to leave in order to attend secondary schools in Thunder Bay, where there is an institutionalized homestay program. In exchange for higher quality education, however, they give up their local community and home environment as well as the opportunity to speak their native language. Those who are able to pass through secondary education then face additional challenges in seeking higher education, where the pursuit of a degree forces them to relocate further to cities that operate almost entirely in English, creating pressure to either assimilate or risk discrimination. Life outside Indigenous communities is thus dominated by English, with Indigenous languages being relegated to the less essential status of traditional cultural markers.

Solutions for Language Revival in Future

If governmental policies have made the preservation of Indigenous languages especially difficult, and the globalized nature of modern society makes English a more useful and necessary language, how can Indigenous languages be preserved?

One solution lies in the potential of education technology and distance learning. If members of Indigenous communities are able to complete their education within their own communities, it would reduce pressure to move to English-dominated areas and cut ties with home environments. The potential of distance learning has already been demonstrated through a graduate degree program for Inuit students that allowed them to study partly remotely. This Masters of Education program continues to operate successfully, and the foundation of its distance learning model could be applied to various levels of education. The COVID-19 pandemic has engendered a newfound proliferation in resources for online education at all levels. If programs are designed specifically around decolonizing learning methodologies and prioritizing Indigenous perspectives, traditional Indigenous beliefs can be integrated into curriculums to preserve valuable cultural and historical views.

If technology were to be harnessed properly for targeted use in schools, it could also help reinforce Indigenous language and improve educational experiences for Indigenous children with culturally tailored curriculums. Indigenous children have a right to receive education in their native language, and those who are taught in their first language perform better academically and are less likely to drop out. In a 2017 survey, knowledge of their native language was also found to be one of the top priorities of Indigenous youth. However, as most teachers in Nunavik schools do not speak Inuktitut, for example, students are instructed exclusively in English and French. Applications for iPads, iPhones, and laptops have already been developed to help young children learn Inuktitut syllabics interactively. These applications also allow keyboards to be downloaded for typing in Indigenous languages. If applications such as these were to be implemented in Indigenous education, they could help decolonize curriculums to include Indigenous perspectives, improve Indigenous children’s relationship to the education system, and preserve languages for future generations.

As the government has been largely responsible for threatening the existence of Indigenous languages, its involvement will also be key in preserving them. Currently, the mechanisms of the Canadian Indigenous Languages Preservation Act are to “establish an Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages,” “provide for agreements [...] to support Indigenous language revitalization and preservation with Indigenous governments,” “facilitate meaningful opportunities for Indigenous governments [...] to collaborate in policy development related to the implementation of this Act, and to “outline federal institutions’ role in providing access to services in Indigenous languages.”

Federal efforts to preserve Indigenous languages, such as those listed above, are especially important in preventing the subordination of such languages to colonial ones. These practices create legal mechanisms that prevent the gradual erosion of Indigenous cultures. For example, the legal requirement that hospitals have a translator on-call can protect Indigenous patients from receiving poor care due to miscommunications in a hospital geared towards treatment only in English or French. The extent to which new mechanisms will be enforced, and whether funding will be efficiently allocated, remains to be seen.

Indigenous peoples in Canada have faced centuries of colonial assimilation imposed by a government that creates barriers to their autonomy and to the preservation of their languages. Strategies to break down these barriers, involving a variety of technological and policy measures, must be carefully designed with the ultimate goal of creating long-lasting social change. This social change requires that Indigenous peoples be able to actively participate in education and society, while remaining connected to their communities to the greatest extent possible.