Literacy and Orality: Preserving endangered oral languages with literacy

In the book Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong (1982), the author describes how languages have evolved from an oral form to a written or literate form. He not only describes the origin of oral languages and the transitions to literacy, but he also describes the differences in words, dialogue, speech, memory, learning, thought, lifestyle and how information is processed between the two forms of language expression. He does this by comparing oral and written cultures that coexisted at the same time and by comparing periods of transition of individual languages over time. Reading Ong made me think about Canadian Indigenous languages and how Indigenous people are rapidly losing these primarily oral languages as the usual mechanisms of passing on oral languages is no longer working.

Most Indigenous languages were oral at first European contact in Canada 200-500 years ago and they remained primarily oral in nature until about 50 years ago. Compared to the conversion of the first languages globally from oral to literate forms 6,000 years ago (Ong 1982), Indigenous language conversion occurred quite recently. Throughout the history of European colonization of Canada, the primary languages of Canada have been either French or English and Indigenous people were discouraged from using their own languages. This was supported through policies of Indian Act of 1876 that were developed to assimilate Indian children into Canadian society. (Assembly of First Nations, 2007). This Act alone is the biggest contributor to Indigenous language loss in Canada. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages (1992), states that at first European contact, there were an estimated 450 aboriginal languages and dialects spoken. The Assembly of First Nations (2007), reported recently that only 53 First Nation languages exist in Canada, and in addition, 32 of these languages occur in the province of British Columbia (FPHLCC, 2010).

Some Indigenous languages remain strong such as Cree, Ojibwa-Anishnaabe and Inuktitut; they are expected to survive because of a healthy base of many fluent speakers. (Assembly of First Nations, 2007; Burnaby, 1996 and Norris, 1998). However, the majority of aboriginal languages in Canada are at risk of disappearing because the majority of fluent speakers for many groups are Elders and fewer and fewer younger people are learning their languages (Canadian Heritage, 2002). In addition, several languages are considered sleeping as there are no fluent speakers currently alive (FPHLCC, 2010).

Leaders in aboriginal communities know that the oral nature of their languages is an important conduit of passing on not only the language from generation to generation but their culture from generation to generation. They can also see that their fluent speakers are disappearing quickly as the vast majority of aboriginal people are fluent in either of Canada’s official languages or both, and fewer and fewer are learning their aboriginal languages. Statistics Canada reported in 2006 that only 5% of First Nations people are fluent in their native language (Statistics Canada, 2008). Losing their language is more than losing the ability to converse in their native tongue; it also threatens the existence of their culture. Research has shown that language is the foundation of culture; take away a language and the culture will erode in the wake. Languages define people; it is the core of their identity and provides a unique way for them to view the world and to express their value and self-worth (NWT Government, 2010). Some have said that many of the troubling mental, physical and health issues that Indigenous people are facing today is related to the rapid loss of their language and culture (FPHLCC, 2010; MARR, 2006).

The solution to preserving their language and culture as seen by many Indigenous groups is through literacy. So they have started to write it down; document their languages in written form. Part of this process involved adapting the standard alphabet to the unique aspects of each language. Thus in a short period of time, they found a way to create a written form of these oral languages. They also use other forms of technology to capture the oral language by recording fluent speaker’s voices, initially through audio tapes and currently with computer based audio visual technologies. First Voices for example is a web-based resource developed in British Columbia used for documenting and archiving Indigenous languages using video, audio and text. In 2011, over 60 Indigenous communities were using First Voices to archive their languages. They have also developed iPod applications for several languages and plan to develop more. (First Voices, 2011).

Due to the dominance of two European based languages and no official recognition of Indigenous languages in Canada, Indigenous language usage for 50 out of 53 languages is in a steady and sharp decline. Through literacy in the traditional form of writing and through computer technology literacy, Indigenous groups in Canada and around the world are currently documenting their oral languages and cultures in an attempt to save them. Many are succeeding, however many have too few fluent speakers to draw upon and too few human and financial resources available to be successful. The Assembly of First Nations however is positive and has a vision that by the year 2027, these initiatives combined with several policy objectives and goals will result in many revitalized First Nations Languages that will be in common use in First Nations homes, communities and nationwide (Assembly of First Nations 2007).

Assembly of First Nations (2007b), National First Nations Language Strategy, Assembly of First Nations, Ottawa, Ontario, July 2007. Retrieved October 2, 2011 from

Burnaby, B. (1996). Language policies in Canada. In M. Herriman, & B. Burnaby (Eds.), Language policies in English dominant countries (pp. 159-219).Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Canadian Heritage. (2002). Aboriginal Languages Initiative (ALI) Evaluation: Final Report. Ottawa, On. Department of Canadian Heritage, February 2003. Retrieved October 2, 2011 from

FPHLCC: First Peoples’ Heritage Language and Culture Council. (2010). Report on the status of BC First Nations Languages 2010. Brentwood Bay, BC. Retrieved on October 2, 2011 from

FirstVoices. (2011). Language legacies celebrating indigenous culture. Retrieved on October 2, 2011 from

MARR: Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation. (2006). First Citizen’s Forum: Aboriginal Education: Speaking Our Languages. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, March 2006. Retrieved October 2, 2011 from

Norris, M. J. (1998). Canada’s Aboriginal languages. Canadian Social Trends (Winter), 51, 8-16.

NWT Government (2010). Northwest Territories aboriginal language plan: a shared responsibility. Yellowknife, NWT. Northwest Territories Education Culture and Employment. Retrieved on October 2, 2011 from

Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. (1992). Our two official languages over time. Ottawa, ON: Office of the Commissioner of Official languages.

Ong, W. J. (1982) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York, NY: Routledge.

Statistics Canada. (2001). Aboriginal languages. Ottawa, On.2001 Aboriginal Languages Survey, Statistics Canada. Retrieved on October 2, 2011 from

This entry was posted in Commentary 1 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Literacy and Orality: Preserving endangered oral languages with literacy

  1. Hi Doug,
    Really interesting post – especially given my post about the dictionary. I added a link to your poast from my section about how dictionaries are sometimes used to preserve languages because you mention the First Voices project. I didn’t know that existed! I’ve just completed a course at work on aboriginal cultural competency, but they didn’t mention that site. Too bad because I can see it is useful. I checked out the Secwepemc pages since that is the language spoken in my home town of Kamloops. You may be interested to know that some of the street signs on the reserve are written in Secwepemc. Thanks for bringing First Voices to my attention!

Leave a Reply