The Silent Genocide: Aboriginal Language Loss FAQ


The photos in this piece, taken by the author, are of a private collection of Haida artwork. The Haida language is currently extremely endangered. According to the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council there is currently 32 fluent speakers in total. The statistics also suggest that there has been a large effort to maintain the language in the newest generation; there are currently 442 people learning the language. The majority of them are under 24 years of age. There are signs of hope.

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What Is The Issue?

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What is language death?

Language death is a process by which the fluency of a language in a given speech community dissipates over time, eventually resulting in the complete loss of speakers of said language. The central premise of language death is that “language is not a self sustaining entity;” it can only exist when there is a community willing to utilize it [1]. For a given language to thrive in a community it must have the social infrastructure to do so; a community of people can only exist where there is a viable environment for them to live and, in turn, they may practice their language in solidarity [2]. Ultimately, languages are considered at risk of dying when they are no longer transmitted to younger generations [3]. As the number of fluent speakers declines, possibilities for transmission decline as well, eventually resulting in the death of a language.

What is the root cause of language death?

There is no definitive cause of language death. However, prevalent discourse on the subject suggests that the cause of language death in recent years can largely be attributed to marginalization of indigenous communities and the subordination of their languages. Globally, indigenous peoples are shifting towards the economically and culturally dominant languages of their regions [4]. This is the result of a process of language subordination, in which the speakers of a culturally dominant language in a particular area marginalize the speakers of minority languages [5]. As a result of marginalization, speakers of minority languages feel inclined to assimilate to the social standard in order increase their social mobility [6].

What is the current prevalence of language death?

Language death is a universal phenomenon; it is not limited to ancient empires and remote backwaters [7]. In fact, the rate at which languages are dying seems to have increased in recent years. Roughly 50% of known languages have disappeared in the last 500 years [8]. Out of an estimated 6000 languages globally 90% of the world speaks 100 of the most used languages; consequently, this means that 98% of the worlds languages are spoken by 10% of the population [9]. This 10% is largely thought to be comprised of indigenous populations in which there is great diversity of language—in some instances an entire language may be limited to a single community [10]. It is precisely these communities that are marginalized and assimilated. Estimates hold that there is as few as 600 languages that are currently regarded as safe from being lost [11].


Why is language death an issue?

It is difficult to take issue with the death of a language unless one takes into account that language isn’t simply a means of communication. To begin with, language defines one’s cognitive perception of reality [12]. For example, the Hopi tribes of Central America speak of time as perpetually occurring and therefore, have no notion of chronology [13]; or the Apache, who associate place names with proper moral standards [14]. The loss of a language is, therefore, the loss of a unique cognitive perspective. Furthermore, due to the fact that most endangered languages tend to be concentrated in the most ecologically diverse areas of the world, the languages of indigenous peoples tend to contain knowledge of organisms unknown to modern science [15]. As a language is lost, the knowledge contained within it is lost as well. Both the cognitive and academic potentials of endangered languages are encompassed by the larger notions of diversity and identity. Language is resoundingly more than a means of communication, it is means by which humans can claim diversity and define their identity [16]. In a time of rapid globalization, “to preserve our languages is also to preserve ourselves and our diverse heritage.” [17]

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What Is The Local Significance?

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What is the state of language death in Canada?

Languages are dying in Canada’s Aboriginal communities at an alarming rate. As of 1996, only 3 out of Canada’s roughly 50 Aboriginal languages had enough speakers to be considered secure [18]. Between 1951 and 1981 the percentage of Aboriginal people reporting an Aboriginal language as a mother tongue declined from 87.4% to 29.3% [19]. Even more problematic is the fact that the average age of said speakers is increasing as well [20]. The stability of these languages largely depends on their size and the average age of their speaker population. A language with a larger speaker population has more potential to be transmitted through generations [21]. Likewise, languages with younger speaker populations reveal the extent to which transmission has been successful and also suggest greater potential for transmission in the future [22]. In Canada, the number of speakers of Aboriginal languages is declining rapidly while their average age is increasing—thus resulting in a smaller base from which these languages can potentially be transmitted [23].

What is the state of language death in British Columbia?

British Columbia’s harsh and mountainous landscape has contributed to the provinces many small and separate indigenous language communities [24]. The languages in these communities are particularly in danger of being lost. British Columbia is home to roughly half of all Aboriginal languages [25]. However, due to the small size of these language groups, the province only accounts for 7% of speakers with an Aboriginal mother tongue [26]. Furthermore, the number of fluent speakers of Aboriginal languages in BC is roughly only 5.1% of those with Aboriginal status; the number of semi-fluent speakers is only marginally better at 8.2% [27]. Even more striking is that, of the few fluent speakers, 91.4% are over the age of 45 [28]. It is projected that without adequate funding and action, the percentage of fluent speakers will drop below 2% by 2014 (FPHLC 11) [29]. The majority of BC’s Aboriginal languages, without intervention, face the threat of extinction.

What is causing this language loss?

In order to answer this, one must first look at the treatment of Aboriginal peoples through Canadian history. In 1763 the Royal Proclamation allowed the Crown to take over First Nations land through treaty [30]. This was followed by the Indian Act in 1876 which removed Aboriginal people from any political decision making process [31]. Thus, the Aboriginal communities that were required to foster language transmission were forcibly dismantled. Furthermore, residential schools that began operating from the 1840’s to the1990’s forced younger generations of Aboriginal language speakers to assimilate culturally and speak English [32]. It is forced assimilation that has been largely to blame for Aboriginal language loss in Canada.

Currently, the loss of language is being perpetuated by the adherence of Aboriginal individuals to mainstream English-speaking society. People within Aboriginal language communities are marginalized by the mainstream society and tend to assimilate in order to increase their social mobility [33]. Furthermore, there is a common thread in discourse on the issue that suggests that the political infrastructure currently in place to ‘ensure’ the maintenance of Aboriginal languages is greatly lacking. Professor Emeritus Verna J. Kirkness from the University of British Columbia urges: “Legislation to protect Aboriginal Languages in Canada must become reality now, because the opportunity to save our languages becomes more remote with each passing generation” [34]. It is precisely this lacking political framework that is the basis for this report.

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Why Is Current Policy Inadequate?

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Are the policies that are currently in place for the protection of aboriginal languages sufficient?

Aboriginal languages are not specifically recognized in either the 1867 or 1982 version of the Canadian Constitution, nor elsewhere in the Federal Government’s legal framework [35]. In the 1982 Constitution Act, section 25 deals specifically with Aboriginal rights:

“The guarantee in this Charter of certain rights and freedoms shall not be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from any aboriginal, treaty or other rights or freedoms that pertain to the aboriginal peoples of Canada.”[36]

Thus, the extent to which Aboriginal languages are protected under the government is ambiguous. It is necessary to determine whether language may be recognized as a right or freedom before determining the sufficiency of policy stated by the constitution. To date, Canada’s Aboriginal languages are no more recognized by the government than any other non-official language [37].

Does the government have programs in place to encourage the maintenance of Aboriginal languages?

There are programs that are funded by the Federal and Provincial Governments directed at protecting Aboriginal languages. The Languages Initiative is currently the leading federally funded program of this kind. The main objective of this program is “to support the preservation and revitalization of Aboriginal languages for the benefit of Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians.”[38] Some of the means by which the program hopes to attain this objective are: the development of language strategies and plans, provision of language instruction, creation of language courses and programs for teaching, creation of language resource materials by the creation of language records [39]. Similarly, the BC Languages Initiative is a provincially funded program that focuses on documentation, immersion programs and community collaboration—among other things—in order to promote the sustainability of Aboriginal languages [40].

How are these programs lacking?

The majority of the feedback in regards to what these government programs are lacking has been received on the federal level. This feedback has been synthesized into the Aboriginal Languages Initiative Evaluation Report, which lists areas of the initiative that are in need of improvement. Primarily, the evaluation states that, although many respondents acknowledge some progress, the allocation of resources must be altered to include Metis and Urban Aboriginals [41]. These groups have reported funding gaps because their constituencies were not included in the initial delivery structure [42]. Likewise, the current over-all level of funding for the program is considered greatly inadequate in respect to the immensity of the objective and it must be increased [43]. Inefficiencies within the conservation efforts themselves were mainly the result of inexperience or lack of capacity at the regional or local level—this includes a lack of awareness or promotional efforts for the projects and a lack of instructional resources such as language archives or education staff [44].

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What Can Be Done?

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In respect to Canada’s legal framework, what can be changed to encourage the protection of Aboriginal languages? Are there legal grounds for this change?

Pressure should be put on the Canadian government to create a more solid legal framework for the protection of Aboriginal rights; this framework should specifically acknowledge Aboriginal languages as a fundamental right and freedom. The framework for this recommendation has already been established in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Resolution. Article 14 states that Aboriginal languages should be treated as fundamental rights that the government has an obligation to protect [45]. The Canadian Government endorses the proposition “in a manner fully consistent with Canada’s Constitution and laws” and furthermore, it is not considered legally binding [46]. These conditions perpetuate the ambiguity as to whether language may be treated as a fundamental right, as previously mentioned, in section 25 of the 1982 Constitution Act. The Canadian Government should be required to clearly acknowledge language as a fundamental right in order to be obliged by international law to protect it.


What improvements can be made to existing language protection programs?

There are several issues with the Aboriginal Languages Initiative that must be addressed. The most pertinent issues and their corresponding recommendations are listed below. Each recommendation builds on recommendations previously outlined in the Aboriginal languages Initiative Evaluation Report and thus, is feasible [47].

1. The allocation of funds must be altered to include Metis and Urban Aboriginals.
(a) Funds for language revitalization could be allocated and administered through committees focused on a specific language group that could act as jury. This would help to eliminate the gaps in program coverage created by using large political organizations.

2. Overall funding must be increased in order to support the immensity of the objective.
(a) Multi-Year funding arrangements should be made to enable better planning. To ensure long-term success and growth of the program the need for additional funding is inevitable.

3. Instructional resources should be improved and made more accessible.
(a) This would involve the exploration of standardized, easy to use reporting systems for projects in order to improve reporting, and performance tracking. This would allow for the allocation of materials where they are needed most.

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How Can Changes Be Realized?

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How might these changes foster the restoration of Canada’s Aboriginal languages?

If the government were to introduce legislation that would recognize language as a fundamental right for Aboriginal communities, it would be compelled to protect that right under Rights of Indigenous Peoples Resolution. This would result, presumably, in the allocation of federal funds towards the Aboriginal Languages Initiative or other programs of the sort. Hence, if the initial recommendations outlined in this report were to be realized, so too would the recommendations for the existing language protection programs. The additional funds would contribute to the development of the program and its objective; including the creation and transmission of resource materials. The promotion of the program will foster the growth of Aboriginal communities in which the maintenance of language becomes more realistic.

What kind of changes would be reasonable to expect?

Small, community level improvements are already being realized as a result of the Aboriginal Languages Initiative and other local and provincial initiatives. For example, the Sto:lo is an indigenous community in what is now the Fraser River Valley that is rapidly mobilizing in order to preserve their native tongue: Halq’eméylem. As of 2010, out of a total population of roughly 2,094, there were only 5 fluent speakers of Halq’eméylem—all between 70 and 90 years old [48]. The community began utilizing federal funding from the Aboriginal Languages Initiative as well as from other provincial and local sources in an effort to preserve the language [49,50]. These efforts included: the formation of an independently run school which emphasizes Sto:lo language and tradition, the creation of an online language database and the development of textbooks and other teaching materials—among other things [51]. The most recent data (2012) from an Aboriginal Languages Initiative review suggests that, although there are no more fluent speakers, 69 are in the process of learning the language and 21 are semi-fluent [21]. This suggests that, perhaps, there is hope for the preservation of Halq’eméylem. Furthermore, it suggests that with proper funding and support, language preservation initiatives may prove successful elsewhere, too.

How does this function in a global context?

Although this report has, thus far, focused on necessary shifts in policy and legislation, the driving principle behind these shifts is part of a larger theme— acknowledgement. Indigenous communities all over the world are losing their languages simply due to the fact that their cultural autonomy is not acknowledged by policy makers nor the public. Some may argue that this is normal part of globalization, or some crude form of Social Darwinism. This ideology is problematic due to the simple fact that many of these communities are not letting go of their language or culture willingly. Often times these communities are pinned to the fringes by neglectful governments and social stigma. They are left with little choice other than assimilation. It is for this reason that acknowledging these fringe communities is necessary. This must happen on a political level as well at the level of the public. The framework for the former has been discussed to some detail while the latter is largely dependent on the action of the former. The recognition of Aboriginal communities at all levels of society is central to the maintenance of language and tradition. It should be a global obligation to encourage the revitalization of Aboriginal languages and to furthermore celebrate our rich cultural diversity as human beings.

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1. Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine, Vanishing Voices (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 5.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 8.

4. Shaylih Muehlmann, “’Spread Your Ass Cheeks’: And Other Things That Should Not Be Said In Indigenous Languages”, American Ethnologist 35, 2008. 36.

5. Rosina Lippi-Green, English with an Accent: Language Ideology and Discrimination in the United States (New York: Routledge, 1997), 68.

6. Ibid., 59.

7. Nettle & Romaine, Vanishing Voices, 4.

8. Ibid., 2.

9. Ibid., 8.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Benjamin L. Whorf, ‘The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior To Language’, in N. Coupland and A. Jarowski (eds), Sociolinguistics: A Reader and Coursebook (London: MacMillan, 1997), 443.

13. Ibid., 446.

14. Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico).

15. Nettle and Romain, Vanishing Voices, 13-15.

16. Patricia Shaw, “Language and Identity, Language and the Land”, BC Studies, no. 131, (2001): 39-55.

17. Nettle & Romaine, Vanishing Voices, 23.

18. Mary Jane Norris, Canada’s Aboriginal Languages, Statistics Canada—Catalogue N0 11-008, (1998)

19. Barbara Burnaby, “Aboriginal Language Maintenance, Development, and Enhancement: A Review of Literature,” Stabilizing Indigenous Languages: Special Issue, 1996. 21-36.

20. Norris, Canada’s Aboriginal Languages, 13

21. ibid., 10

22. Ibid., 12

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., 10

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid., 18

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., 11.

30. First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council. Report on the Status of BC First Nations Languages. (2010): 9,

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid., 10.

34. Verna J. Kirkness,
”The Critical State of Aboriginal Languages in Canada” Canadian Journal of Native Education; 1998; 22, 1; CBCA Complete, 96.

35. University of Ottawa, “Legal Framework | Site for Language Management in Canada (SLMC) – Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute (OLBI),” Accessed March 14, 2013, .

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.

38. Canadian Heritage, “Aboriginal Language Initiative, Aboriginal Peoples’ Program,” Accessed March 15 , 2013, .

39. Canada, Department of Canadian Heritage, Aboriginal Languages Initiative Evaluation, [Consilium], 2003,

40. First Peoples’ Cultural Council. “First Peoples’ Cultural Council | B.C. Language Initiative.” accessed March 16, 2013,

41. Canada, Department of Canadian Heritage, ALI Evaluation

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Kirkness, ,
”The Critical State of Aboriginal Languages in Canada,” 99.

46. Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources. “Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources,” Accessed March 16, 2013,

47. Canada, Department of Canadian Heritage, ALI Evaluation

48. First Peoples’ Cultural Council. “First Peoples’ Cultural Council | B.C. Language Initiative,” 29.

49. Ibid.

50. First Peoples’ Cultural Council. “Language Needs Assessment: Sto:lo Nation,” Accessed March 16, 2013. .

51. First Peoples’ Cultural Council. “First Peoples’ Cultural Council | B.C. Language Initiative,” 30.

52. First Peoples’ Cultural Council. “Language Needs Assessment: Sto:lo Nation .”

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Wisdom Sits in Places. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico.

Burnaby, Barbara. Aboriginal Language Maintenance, Development, and Enhancement: A Review of Literature. Flagstaff: Arizona University Press, 1996. Stabilizing Indigenous Languages: Special Issue; 21-36.

Canada. Department of Canadian Heritage. Aboriginal Languages Initiative Evaluation. [Consilium], 2003. .

Canadian Heritage. “Aboriginal Language Initiative, Aboriginal Peoples’ Program” . Accessed March 15 , 2013. .

First Peoples’ Cultural Council. “First Peoples’ Cultural Council | B.C. Language Initiative.” accessed March 16, 2013. .

First Peoples’ Cultural Council. “Language Needs Assessment: Sto:lo Nation .” Accessed March 16, 2013. .

First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council. Report on the Status of BC First Nations Languages. 2010. .

Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources. “Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources.” Accessed March 16, 2013. .

Kirkness, Verna J.
The Critical State of Aboriginal Languages in Canada. Canadian Journal of Native Education; 1998; 22, 1; CBCA Complete. 93-107

Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent: Language Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Muehlmann, Shaylih. “Spread Your Ass Cheeks”: And Other Things That Should Not Be Said In Indigenous Languages. American Ethnologist 35 (2008): 32–48.

Nettle, Daniel., and Suzanne Romaine. Vanishing Voices. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Norris, Mary Jane. Canada’s Aboriginal Languages. 1998. Statistics Canada—Catalogue N0 11-008.

Shaw, Patricia. Language and Identity, Language and the Land. 2001. BC Studies, no. 131, 39-55.

University of Ottawa. “Legal Framework | Site for Language Management in Canada (SLMC) – Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute (OLBI).” Accessed March 14, 2013. .

Whorf, Benjamin L. ‘The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior To Language’. in N. Coupland and A. Jarowski (eds) Sociolinguistics: A Reader and Coursebook. 443-463. London: MacMillan, 1997.

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Konstantin Prodanovic is a third year English and Political Sciences student at the University of British Columbia. He is currently focused on the study of global communications networks and hopes to pursue a career in journalism in the future.