Language is often recognized as the essence of a culture. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples has stated that the revitalization of traditional languages is a key component in the creation of healthy individuals and communities (RCAP 1996a:163).
Language is “not only a means of communication, but a link which connects people with their past and grounds their social, emotional and spiritual vitality” (Norris 1998: 8).
This section examines the strength of Aboriginal languages among North American Indian people, the Métis and Inuit in non-reserve areas, and focuses on factors associated with perpetuating and revitalizing these languages.
Overall, Aboriginal languages on decline for North American Indian and Métis people in non-reserve areas
In general, many of the Aboriginal languages spoken by North American Indian and Métis people in non-reserve areas are on unsteady ground. Aboriginal language retention and transmission is often difficult due to few opportunities to practice these languages and often fewer opportunities for people to learn an Aboriginal language. The census showed that from 1996 to 2001, several key indicators of Aboriginal language strength declined for North American Indian and Métis people.
For example, among those of all ages, the percentage of non-reserve North American Indian people with an ability to speak an Aboriginal language well enough to conduct a conversation fell from 20% in 1996 to 16% in 2001. At the same time, the use of an Aboriginal language at home13 declined from 8% to 6%. In addition, the proportion of North American Indian people with an Aboriginal mother tongue14 fell from 16% to 13%.
The 2001 Aboriginal Peoples Survey asked respondents if they could speak or understand an Aboriginal language.15 For the non-reserve North American Indian population aged 15 and over, 32% said they could. Of this group, 46% said that they were able to speak an Aboriginal language very well, or relatively well (Table 2).
It is important to note that the information above is for North American Indian people living in non-reserve areas and are not representative of the total Aboriginal population. Generally speaking, Aboriginal languages are spoken and understood more widely in First Nations communities.
Aboriginal language indicators for Métis slip to low levels
Of the three main Aboriginal groups, the Métis were the least likely to know an Aboriginal language. As was the case with the North American Indian population, Aboriginal language use by the Métis declined between 1996 and 2001.
According to the census, 5% of Métis of all ages were able to converse in an Aboriginal language in 2001, down from 8% five years earlier. Similarly, only 2% of Métis of all ages used an Aboriginal language at home in 2001 compared to 3% in 1996. The same was true for mother tongue with a decline from 6% to 4%. The 2001 APS showed that 16% of Métis were able to speak or understand an Aboriginal language. Of people in this group, 34% were able to speak very well, or relatively well.
North American Indian children less likely than adults to know Aboriginal languages
The percentage of North American Indian children aged 14 and under in non-reserve areas with knowledge of an Aboriginal language has declined with time. Census data showed that between 1996 and 2001, the percentage of these children who could converse well enough in an Aboriginal language to carry out a conversation declined from 12% to 9%. The same was true for Aboriginal languages used at home, as the percentage fell from 6% to 5%.
The proportion of North American Indian children with an Aboriginal mother tongue also fell from 9% in 1996 to 7% in 2001. According to the 2001 APS, while 25% of these children reported being able to speak or understand an Aboriginal language in 200116, only 22% of these could do so very well or relatively well.
Low levels of Aboriginal language use among Métis children
Métis children in non-reserve areas were less likely than their North American Indian counterparts to use an Aboriginal language. Census data show that the strength of Aboriginal languages among Métis children ebbed between 1996 and 2001.
In 2001, 3% of Métis aged 14 and under could speak an Aboriginal language well enough to converse, down from 4% five years earlier. Very few Métis children spoke an Aboriginal language at home – only 3% in 1996 and 1% in 2001. The proportion of Métis children with an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue fell from 3% to 2%.
The 2001 APS showed that 11% of Métis children reported being able to speak or understand an Aboriginal language and of these, 16% said they could speak very or relatively well.
Despite some declines, Inuktitut remains strong in Far North
Despite the decline of many Aboriginal languages, some remain viable. Inuktitut remains one of the strongest Aboriginal languages in the country.
Like other Aboriginal languages, Inuktitut is not as strong as it was five years ago. However, its decline is not as rapid as that of many other Aboriginal languages. The census showed that in the Canadian Arctic in 1996, 82% of Inuit of all ages knew Inuktitut well enough to carry on a conversation.17 In 2001, the percentage remained unchanged.
However, this language is being used less often in the home than in the past. In 1996, Inuktitut was the language used most often in the home by 68% of Inuit. By 2001, this had declined to 64%. A somewhat smaller percentage of Inuit reported an Inuktitut mother tongue in 2001, as the figure dipped slightly from 78% in 1996 to 77%.
According to the 2001 APS, the vast majority (90%) of Inuit aged 15 and over living in the Far North said they could understand or speak Inuktitut. Of these, 89% said they could speak it very or relatively well. Older Inuktitut speakers, those aged 65 and over, were most likely to be able to speak or understand Inuktitut; 94% could do so. Almost all of these people (97%) said they could speak Inuktitut very or relatively well.
Inuktitut strong among young Inuit but its use in the home is declining
Although those most likely to speak this language are the elders, there is a strong, solid base of young speakers. Census data for both 1996 and 2001 revealed that 80% of Inuit children aged 14 and under living in the Far North could converse in Inuktitut.
There has been little change in the percentage of Inuit children in the Far North reporting an Inuktitut mother tongue. In 2001, the figure was 73%, virtually unchanged from 74% in 1996.
However, the story is somewhat different for Inuktitut use in the home. In 2001, 64% of Inuit children used this language most often at home, down from 68% five years earlier. This decrease, although slight, is important because using an Aboriginal language in the home is the best way to transmit language from older to younger speakers, thus increasing the likelihood of its survival (Norris 1998).
Another indicator pointing to the strength of language from the 2001 APS shows that nine in 10 (90%) Inuit children in the Far North reported an ability to speak or understand Inuktitut. About 70% of Inuit children who could speak Inuktitut said they could do so very well or relatively well.
Some people learn an Aboriginal language as a second language
One indicator of language revitalization is the difference between the percentage of people that had an Aboriginal mother tongue and the percentage of people that could converse in an Aboriginal language.
According to the 2001 Census, in non-reserve areas, 12% of people reported that the first language they learned and still understood was an Aboriginal language, while 15% said they could converse in an Aboriginal language. The difference between these two figures suggests that some people are learning an Aboriginal language as a second language.
Children receive most help learning an Aboriginal language from their parents
In non-reserve areas, parents were cited as the people most likely to help young language learners. Data from the 2001 APS show that almost seven in 10 children (68%) who could understand or speak an Aboriginal language received some help from their parents. This was followed by grandparents who were cited by 51% of children able to speak or understand an Aboriginal language18 (Chart 10).
In urban and rural areas and in the Far North, parents were cited as the people most likely to help, followed by grandparents. However, there were some variations between regions.
For example, parents were much more likely to be named as language learning helpers in the Far North than in other areas. While 86% of children in the Far North received help from their parents, 67% of children in rural areas and 59% of children in urban areas did so. Grandparents in rural areas were more likely than those in the far north and urban areas to help children learn an Aboriginal language.
School teachers help facilitate language revitalization
Although parents contribute much to teaching their children an Aboriginal language, schools also have an important role to play. For example, children enrolled in Aboriginal Headstart, a pre-school program designed specifically for Aboriginal children, are introduced to the basics of many Aboriginal languages.
For children under 15 who could understand or speak an Aboriginal language, 36% received some help from their school teachers. This was especially the case in the Far North where over one-half (55%) of children who could understand or speak an Aboriginal language received help from their teachers.
Schools also helped facilitate language learning in non-reserve rural areas. Here, over four in 10 (43%) children that could understand or speak an Aboriginal language reported receiving help from teachers. Schools were somewhat less important in urban areas as 22% of young Aboriginal language learners cited teachers as someone from whom they received help learning an Aboriginal language.
Among youth aged between 15 and 24, 16% had been taught in an Aboriginal language in the classroom. Again, this was especially true for Inuit youth in the Canadian Arctic as 82% of people in this age group stated that they had been taught an Aboriginal language in elementary or high school. This was followed by 16% of youth in rural areas and 11% in urban areas.
Majority of Aboriginal people feel Aboriginal language retention and learning are important
Many Aboriginal people living in non-reserve areas stated the importance of Aboriginal languages. There were variations from one Aboriginal group to another and by age (Chart 11). The majority of adults, approximately six in 10, felt that keeping, learning or relearning their Aboriginal language was very or somewhat important. Information for children was gathered from a slightly different question that was asked to the person who knew the most about the child. This person was asked how important it was for them that the child speak and understand an Aboriginal language. A response of very or somewhat important was provided by 6 in ten respondents.
The greatest support for Aboriginal languages came from Inuit as nearly nine in ten Inuit adults stated that their language was very or somewhat important. A similar proportion was provided by those answering on behalf of Inuit children. The comparable proportions for Métis and North American Indian people were one-half and two-thirds respectively.