People & Culture

Why Indigenous languages matter

Multilingualism is at the heart of Canada‘s identity. It’s also a matter of decency and human rights. 

  • Oct 01, 2019
  • 1,138 words
  • 5 minutes
Expand Image

In 1992 Michael Krauss, then head of the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks, published The World’s Languages in Crisis, one of the most disturbing scientific papers ever written. It began with a litany of loss. Among the Eyak of Alaska’s Copper River, where Krauss had worked, there remained but two speakers of the language, both elderly. The Mandan of the Dakotas had but six fluent speakers, the Osage five, the Abenaki-Penobscot 20, the Iowa five, the Tuscarora fewer than 30, the Yokuts fewer than 10.

Some 600 languages, Krauss reported, had fewer than 100 surviving speakers. Half the world’s languages were being kept alive by a fifth of one per cent of the global population. Of the 7,000 extant languages, fully half were not being taught to children. Every fortnight, some elder passes away and carries with him or her into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue. Every two weeks, another language dies. Krauss’s paper was widely read. No linguist challenged his dire prognosis, an academic consensus that was itself haunting.

A language, of course, is not just a set of grammatical rules or a vocabulary; it’s a flash of the human spirit, the vehicle by which the soul of a particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of social, spiritual and psychological possibilities. Each is a window into a universe, a monument to the specific culture that gave it birth and whose spirit it expresses.

The 10 most prevalent world languages are thriving; they are the mother tongues of half of humanity. But what of the poetry, songs and knowledge encoded in the other voices, those cultures that are the guardians and custodians of 98.8 per cent of the world’s linguistic diversity? Is the wisdom of an elder any less important simply because he or she communicates to an audience of one? Is the value of a people a simple correlate of their numbers?

To the contrary, every culture is by definition a vital branch of our family tree, a repository of knowledge and experience, and, if given the opportunity, a source of inspiration and promise for the future. “When you lose a language,” remarked the Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist Ken Hale not long before he died in 2001, “you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It’s like dropping a bomb on the Louvre.” Within a generation, he added, we may witness the loss of fully half of humanity’s social, cultural and intellectual legacy.

Canada mirrors the global language crisis, both in its peril and promise. Of the 60 or more Indigenous languages in Canada, just three — Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibwa — are stable and viable; they account for nearly two-thirds of the nearly 229,000 Canadians who claim an Indigenous language as mother tongue and who regularly speak that language in the home. Of the 12 major language families once solidly established in the country, nine are today the linguistic expression of a mere six per cent of the Indigenous population; five of these — Salish, Tsimshian, Wakashan, Kutenai and Haida — are primarily found in British Columbia, home to more than 30 Indigenous languages that are claimed by fewer than 1,000 individuals. Almost 90 per cent of those who identify with an Indigenous mother tongue in Canada claim one of just 10 languages: Cree, Inuktitut, Ojibwa, Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi), Dene, Anishinini (Oji-Cree), Mi’kmaq, Dakota/Sioux, Atikamekw and Blackfoot. Fifty languages are spoken by First Nations with fewer than 3,000 tribal members; within these communities, linguistic affiliation based on ethnicity does not imply language fluency across the population.

Not all Indigenous languages in Canada are imperilled. Of the 6,000 individuals who claim Atikamekw as their mother tongue, fully 97 per cent speak it at home, as do 90 per cent or more of those who identify with Montagnais (Innu), Oji-Cree, Dene and Inuktitut. Blackfoot is spoken by a third of the Blackfoot nation, a third of the time. Even among communities where language loss has been deep and widespread, language revitalization is both a reality and a powerful aspirational goal. Across the entire spectrum of those who identify with an Indigenous mother tongue, more than 80 per cent report speaking their native language at home.

Why does the survival and revitalization of these languages matter? For one, multilingualism is at the heart of Canada’s identity, a fundamental feature of the foundational narrative of the nation. It is also a matter of decency and human rights. Who among us would want to be the last speaker of our native language, enveloped in silence, with no means or ability to pass on the wisdom of our ancestors or to anticipate the promise of our descendants?

Language allows us to enter what the Irish call the “thin places” — those moments (for they exist in time as much as in space) where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses to reveal glimpses of the divine. If landscape defines character and culture springs from a spirit of place, language is the interpretative lens that reveals the intersection of nature and the human heart.

Many years ago, I spent a long winter on Haida Gwaii. Along the headlands of those islands there was a palatable feeling in the wind, an almost mystical sense that every river and forest glen and all the windswept beaches and broken shorelines remained indisputably the homeland of the Haida. English allows you to describe the appearance of a raven; only Haida permits an actual conversation with the bird. English can measure the speed and direction of the wind; only Haida speaks its language. The flight of an eagle is for the Haida the cursive script of nature, a vocabulary written on the wind. The sounds of the islands echo in every syllable that rolls off the Haida tongue. The language distills a cosmic dialogue, a conversation with the natural world that has existed since the beginning of time, the mythological origins of the world. Without the Haida language, the light that fires the imagination of every Haida child would go out, and the land itself would wither. This is why language matters.

Related: Mapping Indigenous languages in Canada 


Are you passionate about Canadian geography?

You can support Canadian Geographic in 3 ways:

Related Content

Russel Kenny taking writer Laurie Sarkadi and Gzowski for a boat ride on Great Bear Lake to check his nets for trout.


Inside the fight to protect the Arctic’s “Water Heart”

How the Sahtuto’ine Dene of Déline created the Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve, the world’s first such UNESCO site managed by an Indigenous community

  • 1693 words
  • 7 minutes

People & Culture

Kahkiihtwaam ee-pee-kiiweehtataahk: Bringing it back home again

The story of how a critically endangered Indigenous language can be saved

  • 6310 words
  • 26 minutes

People & Culture

Hand talk: Reclaiming Plains Indian Sign Language

Plains Indian Sign Language was used by generations of Indigenous Peoples to communicate across languages and landscapes. Now, it’s being reclaimed. 

  • 3483 words
  • 14 minutes
Indigenous, languages, map, Inuit, First Nations, Metis

People & Culture

Languages of the land: celebrating National Indigenous Languages Day

Languages represent entire worlds of knowledge and meaning. This Indigenous Languages Day, Chief Perry Bellegarde, Honorary President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, introduces a new CanGeo digital series celebrating Indigenous languages from across the lands and waters we call Canada.

  • 514 words
  • 3 minutes