Aboriginal Languages in Canada
Tansi (Cree) - Oki (Blackfoot) - Yo (Kwakwala) - Wotziye (Dene) - Tanshi (Michif)
- Hello/Greeting in different languages
With over 50 Aboriginal languages currently spoken across the country, Canada has an incredible amount of linguistic diversity. For many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, language is an expression of their nationhood and identity. Language is a vital tool for the transmission of values, spiritual and traditional beliefs, and the entire histories of a people from generation to generation.
Aboriginal Languages in Canada
Aboriginal groups in Canada—First Nations, Inuit, and Métis each have their own distinct languages and dialects within these languages.
Language isolate: in linguistics, a language isolate is a natural human language that has no “genetic” or ancestral link to any other language.
First Nations languages
Across Canada, there are eleven Indigenous language families comprised of at least 59 individual languages. These families are: Algonquian, Athapaskan, Eskimo-Aleut, Haida, Iroquoian, Ktunaxa (Kutenai), Salishan, Siouan, Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Wakashan.1 The largest language family is Algonquian, which covers a vast geographical range from the Atlantic Provinces to the central-eastern sections of British Columbia. Cree, part of the Algonquian family, is the most commonly spoken First Nations language in Canada with an estimated 80,000 speakers in 2005.2 Three of these language families (Haida, Ktunaxa, and Tlingit) have only one language and are considered language isolates. Furthermore, a single language can contain many dialects and linguistic variations within a small geographical area. For example, Halkomelem has Upriver, Downriver, and Vancouver Island dialects. For a list of Aboriginal languages currently spoken in Canada, as well as their distribution, visit the Atlas of Canada here.
The diversity of these languages is remarkable, even within a single language family. Halkomelem, spoken by the Coast Salish of the lower Fraser River and southern Vancouver Island, is as different from Okanagan as Finnish and Hungarian. Cree (Algonquian) is as different from Mohawk (Iroquoian) as English and Japanese.3 Linguists have found that many First Nations languages are typologically unique, using structures and systems remarkably different from the more commonly studied Indo-European languages. As a result, linguists have found that First Nations languages are incredibly valuable to gaining better understandings of the way humans use language.4
As First Nations traditionally preserved and transmitted their culture and history through the oral tradition, no First Nations language in Canada had a writing system prior to European contact. Starting in the mid-19th century, European missionaries created writing systems for the Cree and Ojibwe peoples in an effort to teach them about Christianity. Over time, these writing systems were developed and consolidated to encompass more languages. Currently, the Algonquian, Athapaskan, and Eskimo-Aleut language families use variants of the Canadian Aboriginal Syllabic writing system. Some First Nations languages use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).5 Others have their own systems. Many Salish nations in British Columbia, for example, have their own practical orthographies that are based on Roman characters.
- First Nations Languages map of B.C. Click to enlarge. Reproduced courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology, University of B.C., Vancouver.
British Columbia is the most linguistically diverse region in Canada. In a province that only encompasses about 10 percent of Canada’s total area, more than 30 Indigenous languages are spoken here.6 Of the eleven Indigenous language families in Canada, eight are found in B.C, including the three language isolates: Haida, Tlingit, and Ktunaxa. (See Aboriginal language map of B.C., to the right.)
The Inuit, living in the area above the tree line stretching from the Western Arctic to northern Quebec and Labrador, all speak mutually comprehensible dialects of a single language. This language is most commonly known as Inuktitut, the dialect spoken by Inuit peoples in the Eastern Arctic. Inuktitut is the third most-spoken Indigenous language in Canada, with over 25,000 speakers.7 To learn some Inuktitut, visit Tusaalanga Inuktitut.
Métis people, who are the descendants of European settlers and First Nations, traditionally spoke a language called Michif. Michif evolved as a result of the fusion of European and Aboriginal cultures. It is generally a mixture of Cree verbs and sentence structures combined with French noun-phrases.8 Originally a trading language, Michif was soon adopted as the “national” language of the Métis. Michif is still spoken in some Métis communities in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, although it is estimated that there are less than 1,000 fluent speakers.9 Many Métis speak First Nations languages as well, including Cree, Dakota, Ojibwe, and Dene.
Another language that developed during the fur trade is Chinook. Chinook was most commonly spoken in British Columbia and along the Northwest Pacific Coast. Chinook is not as linguistically complex as other languages and is therefore considered a jargon. It is comprised of English, French, and the language of the Chinook people.10 While Chinook is for the most part no longer spoken, Chinook continues to be researched and studied via dictionaries. Many Chinook words are have entered the English vernacular of the Pacific Coast. Some common Chinook words still used today are potlatch and tyee.
Despite the amazing diversity of Aboriginal languages across Canada, many languages are declining in use or are endangered due to the tragic history of assimilation policies carried out by the Canadian government. In an attempt to assimilate First Nations cultures into English society, the government discouraged and suppressed thousands of years of linguistic diversity and knowledge. One devastating assimilation strategy was the residential school system. Starting in the late 1880s, thousands of Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their parents and communities and were forced to attend church-run boarding schools funded by the Canadian government.11 Speaking First Nations languages at school was strictly forbidden, and students who disobeyed these rules often faced severe physical or emotional punishment. Cut off from their families, many students lost the ability to speak their First Nations languages and subsequently, were unable to pass on these skills to their children. Furthermore, even after the residential school system ended, many adult survivors were too traumatized and ashamed to speak or re-learn their language again. Some others discouraged their children from learning their ancestral language, believing that fluency in English or French would make their lives easier. As a result, generations of Aboriginal peoples are still experiencing the repercussions of language loss. When a language is lost, the culture, health, and identity of a people is also threatened.12
Today, the statistics on Aboriginal language use appears grim: across Canada, only 25 percent of the Aboriginal population is able to speak or understand an Aboriginal language without full fluency.13 Among the Haida, Tlingit, and Ktunaxa, all of whom who speak language isolates, the average age of mother-tongue speakers is about 50 years old.14 As these speakers age and pass on, languages become increasingly endangered. For Aboriginal peoples living in urban areas, they face greater obstacles learning and speaking their languages because they are isolated from their communities and may lack cultural support.
Despite this history of language loss, Aboriginal Canadians are working together to revitalize their ancestral languages by preserving the knowledge of elders and teaching a new generation of speakers. Instead of viewing language loss through a pessimistic standpoint, some people refuse to consider some languages “extinct,” but rather see languages that have no fluent speakers as “sleeping languages” that can be “awakened”.15 One common goal among some First Nations communities is to promote local control over their children’s education, a common philosophy among supporters of Aboriginal rights and self-government. For example, in British Columbia, the Stó:lo First Nation of the Fraser Valley have developed many initiatives to revitalize their traditional language, Halq’emeylem (Upriver Halkomelem). One program is the Pre-School Language Nest, a pre-school system modelled after a family home environment where children learn through natural language immersion. Another initiative is the Master-Apprentice Program, in which a fluent speaker is paired with a learner, and they carry out daily activities using Halq’emeylem at all times.16
In British Columbia, the Ministry of Education has recognized the rights of First Nations to develop and educate their children in their traditional languages. Sixteen school districts in the province are approved to teach fourteen different First Nations languages for the B.C. Kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum. Languages are regularly added to the curriculum following a consultation process with band councils, elders, and language teachers.17
In academia, linguists and anthropologists are recording as many mother-tongue speakers of Aboriginal languages as they can. For some people who have forgotten their language, listening to these recordings can trigger their memory and help them regain their language skills. These initiatives have bridged academic research with on-the-ground language revitalization. For example, the Squamish Nation has combined language curriculum development sessions with a Squamish speaking group for elders. Having a place where elders can be surrounded by other fluent Squamish speakers has become just as much a reason for the meetings as the curriculum development. Post-secondary institutions are also increasingly offering Aboriginal language courses to students. See, for example, UBC’s First Nations Languages Program. Furthermore, some students are finding innovative and groundbreaking ways to revitalize Aboriginal languages through their academic studies. In June 2009, Fred Metallic, a York University Ph.D. candidate, became the first university student to write a doctoral dissertation in an Aboriginal language without an English or French translation. His dissertation, written entirely in Mi’kmaq, examines the reclamation of history and culture by the Mi’kmaq First Nation in Atlantic Canada.18
Over the years, the federal government and Aboriginal peoples have made significant efforts to heal and reconcile the legacy of discrimination and assimilation. In their final report, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recognizes that the “Aboriginal language status and use is a core power in Aboriginal self-government.”19 For Aboriginal peoples, speaking their traditional languages is not only an expression of identity, it is also an assertion of empowerment. In conclusion, the following quote encapsulates the importance of language for Aboriginal peoples in Canada:
“One Elder has said, ‘Without the language, we are warm bodies without a spirit’.”
Mary Lou Fox, Ojibwe elder
By Alice Huang.
Maps and Charts
Atlas of Canada: Aboriginal Languages (interactive map)
Department of Natural Resources Canada
Canada’s Aboriginal Languages (interactive map)
Canada’s First Nations: Native Civilizations Language Map
University of Calgary
Currently Spoken Aboriginal Canadian Languages (chart)
First Nations Languages of British Columbia
UBC Museum of Anthropology
First Peoples’ Language Map of BC (interactive map)
First People’s Heritage, Language, and Culture Council
Sound Recordings and Writing Systems
A suite of web-based tools and services designed to support Aboriginal people engaged in language archiving, language teaching & culture revitalization. Website contains thousands of text entries in many diverse Aboriginal writing systems, enhanced with sounds, pictures and videos.
Free Native American Lessons and Courses
Links to vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation guides of several Canadian Aboriginal languages (Abenaki, Chinook, Cree, Haida, Halkomelem/Salish, Michif, Ojibwe)
A comprehensive, interactive website to teach users Inuktitut, created by the Pirurvik Centre in Iqualuit.
A dynamic and interactive website that teaches the user various Michif words and phrases, as well as other elements of Métis culture such as material objects, music, and history.
Television and Radio Stations
Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN)
Television programs related to Aboriginal peoples in English, French, and Aboriginal languages
Available on most cable systems; check your local listings
Aboriginal Voices Radio
Features Indigenous musical artists from Canada and around the world.
Listen at 106.3 FM (in Metro Vancouver)
CBC Aboriginal Legends Project
First Nations legends and songs from across Canada, narrated in English and different First Nations languages by elders
Listen Online: http://www.cbc.ca/aboriginal/legends-project/
Online collection of Inuit (Inuktitut) and Indigenous multimedia in over 41 languages.
Watch online: http://www.isuma.tv/hi/en
Missinipi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC Radio)
Radio broadcasts in Cree, Dene, and English, based in Saskatchewan
Listen Online: http://www.mbcradio.com/index3.html
Word of the Day: http://www.mbcradio.com/word_of_day/today/default.asp
Videos and Documentaries
Produced by Banchi Hanuse
A beautiful, short documentary about Nuxalk oral tradition that explores the intersection of place, culture, and stories in the Bella Coola Valley.
Official website: http://www.smayaykila.com/cryrock/
Finding Our Talk
Produced by Mushkeg Media
A series of documentaries featuring Aboriginal languages in Canada and the broader Indigenous world. DVDs available at UBC Library.
Episode Guide: http://www.mushkeg.ca/
Our First Voices
Produced by Knowledge Network, British Columbia
A documentary celebrating thirteen BC First Nations languages and preserving them for future generations.
Watch online: http://www.knowledge.ca/program/our-first-voices
Our First Voices- Shorts
Produced by Knowledge Network, British Columbia
A series of short clips from the documentary ‘Our First Voices,’ celebrating thirteen BC First Nations languages and preserving them for future generations.
Watch online: http://www.knowledge.ca/program/our-first-voices-shorts
Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, in partnership with First Nations communities in BC/Yukon
A series of short videos featuring First Nations youth and their communities. In English and different First Nations languages.
Watch online: http://films.nfb.ca/ourworld/index.php
Linguistics and Language Study
Institute on Field Linguistics and Language Documentation
University of Oregon
Indigenous Languages and Technology Listserve
University of Arizona
First Nations Languages: Provincial and Territorial Curriculum Guides
The Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers
First Nations Language Program, University of British Columbia
Aboriginal Language and Literary Institute, University of British Columbia
First Nations Languages
Xwi7xwa Library, University of British Columbia
First Nations Languages of British Columbia
University of British Columbia Library
1 Canada, Towards a New Beginning: A Foundational Report for a Strategy to Revitalize First Nation, Inuit, and Métis Languages and Cultures, Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures (Ottawa: Department of Canadian Heritage, 2005), 33.
2 Canada, Towards a New Beginning, 34.
3 Canada, Towards a New Beginning, 33.
4 Thompson, James. Personal communication with, Erin Hanson, November 1, 2010.
5 “Writing Systems,” Yinka Dene Language Institute, www.ydli.org/dakinfo/writing.htm (accessed October 11, 2010).
6 Robert J. Muckle, The First Nations of British Columbia: An Anthropological Survey, 2nd ed. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007), 38.
7 Canada, Towards a New Beginning, 33.
8 Canada, Towards a New Beginning, 33.
9 Canada, Towards a New Beginning, 37.
10 “Chinook Jargon,” Yinka Dene Language Institute, www.ydli.org/bcother/chinook.htm (accessed October 11, 2010).
11 Canada, Towards a New Beginning, 44.
12 First Peoples’ Heritage, Language, and Culture Council, Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages, (Brentwood Bay, B.C.: First Peoples’ Heritage, Language, and Culture Council, 2010), 7.
13 Mary Jane Norris, “Aboriginal Languages in Canada: Emerging Trends and Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition,” Canadian Social Trends 11-008 (Ottawa: Department of Statistics Canada, 2007), 19.
14 Canada, Towards a New Beginning, 35.
16 First Peoples’ Heritage, Language, and Culture Council, Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages, 29.
18 Erin Rosenberg, “Mik’maq PhD Dissertation a Canadian First,” This Magazine this.org/magazine/2009/05/12/mikmaq-phd-thesis/ (accessed October 10, 2010).
19 Canada, Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (Ottawa: Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 1996).
British Columbia. “Aboriginal Languages Alive in B.C. Schools.” Ministry of Education. http://www2.news.gov.bc.ca/news_releases_2009-2013/2010EDUC0073-000736.htm (accessed October 10, 2010).
Canada. Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Ottawa: Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 1996.
Canada. Towards a New Beginning: A Foundational Report for a Strategy to Revitalize First Nation, Inuit, and Métis Languages and Cultures. Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures. Ottawa: Department of Canadian Heritage, 2005.
First Peoples’ Heritage, Language, and Culture Council. Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages. Brentwood Bay, B.C.: First Peoples’ Heritage, Language, and Culture Council, 2010.
“Holding Our Tongues.” ABC Radio National. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/awaye/stories/2010/2758510.htm (accessed October 11, 2010).
Muckle, Robert J. The First Nations of British Columbia: An Anthropological Survey, 2nd ed. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007.
Norris, Mary Jane. “Aboriginal Languages in Canada: Emerging Trends and Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition.” Canadian Social Trends 11-008. Ottawa: Department of Statistics Canada, 2007.
Omniglot, http://www.omniglot.com/writing/ucas.htm (accessed October 11, 2010).
Rosenberg, Erin. “Mik’maq PhD Dissertation a Canadian First.” This Magazine http://this.org/magazine/2009/05/12/mikmaq-phd-thesis/ (accessed October 10, 2010).
Yinka Dene Language Institute. http://www.ydli.org/dakinfo/writing.htm (accessed October 11, 2010).pdf printable version