Near Extinction and Revitalization of Aboriginal Heritage Languages in North America

Near Extinction of Aboriginal Heritage Languages in North America

Of the 50 First Nation, Inuit and Métis languages spoken in Canada, only three of them are considered to be viable to continue to be in use in the long term, and this is only if concerted revitalization efforts are made (CanWest Digital Media, 2004).  Added to the knowledge that in the past 100 years or so, 10 of Canada’s aboriginal heritage languages have become extinct (Norris, 1998), we see that study of the causes of the decline of these languages is warranted.  This paper will discuss historical and contemporary reasons for the decline of aboriginal languages and offer a perspective on the importance of the preservation and revitalization of such languages.

A traditional belief is that the primary contributor to the decline of aboriginal languages in Canada was the decades of mandatory attendance at Indian Residential Schools during their 165 year existence (1831 – 1996) where, among other atrocities, students were prohibited from communicating in their heritage language upon risk of facing severe corporal and emotional punishment as they were taught to think and act the manner of the domineering Caucasian social class within an educational system that was rife with assimilation, colonialism, racism superiority and ethnocentrism (Myran, 2008).  While residential schools were largely successful in extinguishing heritage languages from their students, there are notable, exceptions to this approach (Clifton, 2008) where students were permitted to keep their language.  Additionally, not all students who attended residential schools resided at them full time; in which case, those students were able to return home regularly and converse in their normal environment using their traditional language.

Canada’s policy of assimilation enacted through the Indian Residential Schools failed to effectively integrate and empower First Nation people (Grant 1996), and instead left them “a people crippled by assimilative and colonial policies of the past [in] a dismal state of dependence”  (Bennett, Blackstock, & De La Ronde, 2005).  As such, many First Nations people are left with seemingly no way back to a traditional ways of living and speaking and, out of necessity, turn to the dominant system for survival.  The resulting attempts at integration, however successful, further contribute to the decline of heritage languages (Hinton 2010).

A speaker’s first and second languages have a degree of economic value that is largely determined by the primary language used in the society in which the speaker interacts. Thus, in North America, English is a hegemonic language making all others “economically irrelevant” (Smolicz, 1994).  From this economic perspective, First Nation languages are a possible first language, but unlikely to be a second language that non-native speakers learn in order to seize economic opportunity, which is a primary driver in the acquisition of new languages (King 2007).  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States where one time House Speaker, Newt Gingrich drew cheers from the crowd as he addressed the National Federation of Republican Women and “described bilingual education as teaching ‘the language of living in a ghetto’” and warned of the “ ‘long-term dangers to the fabric of our nation’ and that ‘allowing bilingualism to continue to grow is very dangerous’ ” (Hunt, 2007).  Canada’s political system and views may differ from those of the United States, but its economic systems are not and Churchill, Dunn and Tinker (2005) describe in their notable book, Kill the Indian, Save the Man: the Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools, Canada and the United States have a parallel and comparable history in terms of First Nations history and relations.

Toward Revitalization

Despite the economic power of English and the historical impact of Indian Residential Schools combining to decimate or extinguish most First Nations languages in North America, efforts to revitalize many are taking place that include both First Nations speakers and non-First Nations speakers.  Expectantly, the impetus behind these revitalizations is not at all economic, but more personal and is primarily one of finding belonging (Hinton, 2002 & 2010; King, 2007).  In describing their reasons for reclaiming their heritage language, many First Nations speakers comment on the links between language and identity, culture and spirituality (Hinton, 2010) thus it can be interpreted that First Nations speakers often look to reclaim heritage languages before revitalizing them; whereas the same cannot be said for non-First Nations speaker whose language it is not to be “reclaimed” but can be learned and revitalized (for many of the same reasons as First Nations speakers).  Additionally, there is a history of linguists, anthropologists and sociologists documenting endangered languages in an attempt to preserve them.

Revitalization of a language requires that new speakers use it for communication and in order for communication to occur, speakers generally need to be taught the language in either a formal or informal setting.  Although informal language learning (through unstructured conversation with a fluent speaker) seems an inefficient approach; it is arguably the more holistic one as it is the natural way for language learning and incorporates the contextual and authentically cultural aspects of the language.  In the context of learning an endangered language, this inefficient approach has additional challenges.  None may be more significant than the simple lack of fluent speakers from whom to learn the language.  There is also competition for this limited resource coming from the scholars wishing to study and document the language (Grounds, 2007) who, somewhat ironically, also contribute to the decline of the language anytime they use English as the primary mode of communication between themselves and their consultants.  Also unexpected, is the role that some bands and tribes play in taking strict control of their language as intellectual property and occasionally dissuade those who are not card-carrying members from learning or using the language (Hinton,2010).  This purist approach further restricts access to fluent speakers.

Formal approaches to education in endangered languages have been successful in working toward revitalization with immersion programs having particular success (Wilson and Kamanā, 2000).  Formal language teaching programs utilize one or both of two categories for instruction.  The first focuses on literacy (reading, writing, and grammar), and the second focuses on orality and situated/situational learning.  The second of these methodologies is the most ideal of the two; however, in respect to First Nations languages it suffers from the same constraints as informal language learning; most notably a lack of native speakers to teach and model the language.  The first of these methodologies is potentially easier to facilitate, yet is arguably less effective in that it takes the language out of context, segregating it from its oral context and the cultural dynamics so closely tied to orality.  This is particularly problematic in the context of North American Aboriginal languages that are almost exclusively oral.  Where no script exists, one needs to be developed or borrowed from another language before an orthography can be developed.  It is at this point that the work of linguists documenting languages for preservation plays a role in the revitalization (Hinton 2010), particularly when there are no first language speakers anymore.


The extinction and near extinction of numerous aboriginal languages in North America and worldwide has resulted in a great loss of culture, identity and spirituality, particularly for those whose language has been lost.  The causes of extinction are not entirely malevolent as in the case of the Indian Residential Schools, but also economic in the perception that these languages are “economically irrelevant” for those marginalized speakers seeking to regain power. Through high quality documentation, linguists and other scholars have provided the foundations for second language learners to acquire and use aboriginal heritage languages, however, a literacy approach to language learners deprives the new speakers of the cultural and spiritual aspect of the language being learned.  If language revitalization in the truest sense of the term is to be successful, a methodology of instruction combining formal and informal, literacy and orality is required.


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