2019: The International Year of Indigenous Languages

January 28, 2019

Long description follows.

In 2016, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL 2019). At the time of adoption, 40% of the estimated 6,700 languages spoken around the world were in danger of disappearing. IYIL 2019 aims to draw attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to revitalize and promote them at national and international levels.

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is working closely with Indigenous and non-Indigenous language experts and technology developers to help stabilize, revitalize, and reclaim Indigenous languages in Canada. To help generate greater awareness and action throughout IYIL 2019, the NRC will share with Canadians and people around the world key facts about Indigenous languages in Canada and highlights from its collaborative Canadian Indigenous languages technology project.

Indigenous languages in Canada

Over two hundred thousand speakers strong

Did you know that, according to 2016 census of population data Footnote 1, close to 230,000 people speak Indigenous languages in Canada? Most of these speakers learned the language as their mother tongue, but a significant number, especially among younger people, speak it at home after having learned another language first. The 2018 Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations shows a growing number of Indigenous youth under 25 are now learning, reclaiming, and becoming fluent in Indigenous languages. Footnote 2

Diversity of Indigenous languages

In 2016, the 5 most spoken Indigenous languages in Canada were:

  • Cree (Algonquian language family), close to 100,000 speakers
  • Inuktitut (Inuit language family), about 40,000 speakers
  • Ojibway (Algonquian language family), about 25,000 speakers
  • Oji-Cree (Algonquian language family), about 15,000 speakers
  • Dene (Athabascan language family), about 10,000 speakers

These five languages account for about 190,000 speakers; the other 40,000 speak more than 60 other Indigenous languages. This is consistent with international distribution, where a small proportion of speakers account for the greatest number of languages spoken.

Indigenous languages from coast to coast to coast

People speak Indigenous languages in almost every region of Canada, as illustrated in the infographic below from Statistics Canada.

Regional distribution of language families:

  • Cree, Ojibway, and Oji-Cree are part of the Algonquian language family. Cree itself is a spectrum where west Cree (e.g., Plains Cree) is considerably different from east Cree (e.g., Naskapi). People with Cree languages as their mother tongue live mainly in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, or Quebec. Those with Ojibway or Oji-Cree mother tongues are mainly located in Ontario or Manitoba.
  • Inuktitut is by far the most frequently reported mother tongue within the Inuit language family. People with Inuktitut as their mother tongue live mainly in Nunavut or Quebec.
  • The Dene language family, which includes Athabaskan languages, is most spoken in Saskatchewan. Speakers of specific Dene languages— Tlicho, Dënesųłiné, Dene Zaa, or Dene Thah, for example— will say they speak Dene, which is typically the word for "people."
  • British Columbia has the greatest diversity of Indigenous languages in Canada, where people speak more than 30 Indigenous languages. Many of these belong to the Salish, Tsimshian, Wakashan, Kutenai, and Haida language families.

Where to learn Indigenous languages

In Canada there are many Indigenous-run immersion schools, Indigenous language schools and classes. In just about every medium or large-sized city across the country, at least a half dozen different Indigenous language classes are available. These classes are often run through education centres and even out of people's homes. There are also very effective mentor-apprentice programs that pair learners and speakers together. Compiling a definitive list of Indigenous language schools, courses, and resources is a full time job— one the NEȾOLṈEW̱ project is taking on at a national level. The First Peoples' Cultural Council, a First Nations-run Crown Corporation with a mandate to support the revitalization of Indigenous languages, arts, culture and heritage, provides a list of places and resources in British Columbia to learn Indigenous languages.

In terms of post-secondary learning, the University nuhelot'įne thaiyots'į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills (UNBQ), Six Nations Polytechnic, the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, Queens University, the University of Alberta, the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Montreal, and many others offer Indigenous language programs.

Revitalizing Indigenous languages today

Throughout 2017-2018, Indigenous communities participated in government consultations on legislation to help revitalize Indigenous languages. Key observations and feedback from these communities noted by Canadian Heritage include Footnote 3:

  • Indigenous languages are an Indigenous right. All Indigenous people, regardless of where they reside, have a right to have their languages accessible, revitalized and acknowledged. All languages and age groups are equally important. No language and no demographic can be left behind.
  • There is a great diversity of Indigenous languages in Canada; their levels of vitality and needs for revitalization differ from language to language. Revitalization efforts should be reflective of geographic and situational circumstances. Funding and programs to support Indigenous language preservation, promotion and revitalization will need to be adequate, appropriate and sustained, with levels of funding appropriate to local, regional and national circumstances, needs-based, and sustained over the long term.
  • To successfully promote and revitalize Indigenous languages, communities and Indigenous people must be involved. This includes decision making and control, particularly concerning the management of existing languages institutions that might be enhanced and/or new, non-political, Indigenous-led institutions that may be created.
  • We must acknowledge past harms of government policies related to Indigenous languages and cultures, including the intergenerational impact of residential schools as a cause of Indigenous people's trauma and erosion of language.
  • Indigenous worldviews encompass land, knowledge and relationships with all living things. These elements shape the constructs of Indigenous languages at a foundational level. Land-based language training is an important learning activity where language and Indigenous worldview interconnect.
  • Technology can assist a large number and varied demographic of Indigenous people in learning and maintaining Indigenous languages, and can help reach more young people. However, Indigenous worldviews can be missing from technology, and technology may be challenging for northern and remote locations with limited to no connectivity. Technology is just one of the many tools, resources and initiatives that can help revitalize Indigenous languages.

Learn more

To find out more about Indigenous language technologies in Canada, the following publication authored by the NRC's Indigenous Languages Technology Project team provides a survey of recent technologies being developed:

It is within the context of the observations, feedback, and role of technology described above that the NRC is collaboratively developing speech- and text-based technologies with Indigenous and non-Indigenous language experts and technology developers to help stabilize, revitalize and reclaim Indigenous languages by supporting Indigenous language educators and students, promoting the accessibility of audio recordings, and supporting Indigenous language translators, transcribers and other language professionals.

Stay tuned for project updates throughout IYIL2019!

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