The imposition of a dominant language on a people.
Since a time before memory, Indigenous1
languages thrived on Turtle Island (the continent now called North America). More than 500 years ago foreigners arrived from lands afar and brought with them their languages. Through many devastating events such as genocide, colonialism, linguistic imperialism
, new diseases, forced relocation, the upset of Indigenous economic, social and political systems, as well as the most likely influential factor – the enforcement of English-only residential schools for all Indigenous children – Indigenous languages declined in use and existence (McCarty, 2003; Spolsky, 2002).
It is estimated that at the time of first contact with Europeans, there were approximately 450 Aboriginal languages and dialects in Canada (Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 1992). In the last 100 years alone, at least ten of Canada's Aboriginal languages have become extinct (Norris, 1998), in addition to those lost prior to the last century. There are now approximately 60 Indigenous languages still spoken in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2008). Only three of these 60 languages (i.e., Cree, Inuktitut, and Anishnaabe) are expected to remain and flourish in Aboriginal communities due to their population base (Burnaby, 1996; Norris, 1998). However, new research states that the number of speakers alone is a poor indicator of the health of a language; what is most important is the occurrence of intergenerational language transmission and especially how many children are learning the language (Barrena et al., 2007; Norris, 2003).
Over the past 40-50 years, Indigenous people have begun a process of reclaiming their languages and working towards their revival and use. Many communities are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their methods of revival, while at the same time original speakers of Indigenous languages are passing on with each changing season. The purpose of this paper is to summarize the literature to date on Indigenous language revitalization strategies and to provide discussion questions and future directions for the continuation of Indigenous languages.
Recent Research Results
Why is it important to ensure the survival of Indigenous languages?
Why is it important to ensure the survival of Indigenous languages?
What are Indigenous communities doing to revive and continue their languages?
What methods are working well?
What stands in the way of success for Indigenous people's revival and continuation of their languages?
Every time a language dies, unique and irrecoverable knowledge is lost (Blair, Rice, Wood, & Janvier, 2002; Foundation for Endangered Languages, 2004; UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages, 2003). Some of the world's foremost authorities on language predict that of the approximately 6,000 languages presently spoken in the world, up to 90% will disappear within the next 100 years (Crystal, 2000; Dixon, 1997; Krauss, 1992). Further, they estimate that 96% of the world's languages are spoken by only 4% of its people (Bernard, 1996; Crystal, 1997). This means that most of the world's language diversity is in the stewardship of a very small number of people (UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages, 2003).
What are Indigenous communities doing to revive and continue their languages?
Communities in Canada and abroad are using ingenuity and determination to maintain and revive Indigenous languages. The following is a summary of current strategies being employed and research being carried out in Indigenous communities, mainly in North America but with some promising models from abroad as well.
Documentation and preservation
Some Indigenous groups advocate for preservation activities to save what remains of the language before it is too late (Blair et al., 2002; Penfield et al., 2008). These include creating dictionaries, taping Elders speaking the language and, more recently, incorporating the use of computers and interactive CD-ROMs (Morrison & Peterson, 2003). The web-based resource FirstVoices™ is a prominent example of multimedia technology, documenting and archiving Indigenous languages using text, sound, and video clips (First Peoples' Cultural Foundation, 2007). Another aspect of documentation that overlaps with resource development is orthography creation. Many Indigenous language groups have developed their own writing systems or continue to refine the one they have (Brand, Elliott, & Foster, 2002; Hinton, 2001c).
Curriculum development is necessary to successfully initiate a language transmission process (Kirkness, 2002). Most often, communities create print resources (Wilson & Kamana, 2001); some multimedia examples include an award-winning Cree for Kids
video (ScreenWeavers Studios, 2002) and an Arapaho version of the Disney movie Bambi
created by Stephen Greymorning (2001). In addition, an all-Navajo radio station (Yaunches, 2004) and five and a half hours a week of television programming on the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation contribute to the maintenance of Indigenous languages (Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples, 1996). A Hawaiian group negotiated an agreement with Apple to create an operating system completely in Hawaiian, the first time a MAC OS was ever made available in an Indigenous American language (Warschauer, Donaghy, & Kuamoyo, 1997).
It is important to continually modernize Indigenous languages. It is especially important to incorporate contemporary expressions and concepts to capture young people's attention and interest (Anthony, Davis, & Powell, 2003), without having to revert to English. Recent examples include a Cree Health Board in Quebec tasked with creating new words for health terms such as pancreas and insulin (Bonspiel, 2005) as well as a Hawaiian computer project (Warschauer et al., 1997), which led to the creation of new Hawaiian words such as 'upload' (hoÿouka
– the same word for loading a canoe) and 'save' (mälama
- part of a phrase that means to take proper care).
Teacher training/ Post-secondary initiatives
Some communities train Indigenous language teachers as a strategy for language retention and revitalization (Johns & Mazurkewich, 2001; Smith & Peck, 2004; Stikeman, 2001; Suina, 2004). It is often recognized that being a fluent speaker does not automatically make for a skillful language teacher and, in fact, a first language speaker is often unaware of the difficulties of learning that language (Jacobs, 1998). Kirkness (2002) recommends having "appropriate, certified training programs available to enable our people to become language teachers, linguists, interpreters, translators, curriculum developers, and researchers" (p. 19). In 1999, the British Columbia College of Teachers helped to co-develop and approve one such certificate for teaching Indigenous languages and culture called the Developmental Standard Teaching Certificate (First Nations Education Steering Committee, 2001). More recently, the En'owkin Centre in partnership with the University of Victoria co-created a post-secondary training certificate called the Certificate in Aboriginal Language Revitalization. In addition, Dr. Lorna Williams, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Learning at the University of Victoria, is in the process of developing a Bachelor's and a Master's degree programs in Indigenous Language and Culture Revitalization. The University of Alberta also runs a summer institute called the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute (CILLDI), which is similar to the one based at the University of Arizona called the American Indian Languages Development Institute (AILDI), both of which focus on the training of language teachers.
Policy development and political advocacy
Some Aboriginal people focus on policy change, working for organizations that strategize, plan, and fundraise at federal or provincial levels for far-reaching effects on the language revitalization movement (Assembly of First Nations, 1991; First Nations Languages and Literacy Secretariat, 1992). One such success is the creation of the federal Aboriginal Languages Initiative in 1998, which disburses nation-wide funding for community-based Aboriginal language projects (First Peoples' Heritage Language and Culture Council, 2003; Norris, 2003). Kirkness (2002) stresses a push for legislation to protect Aboriginal languages as well as the right to use them. In June 2005, the Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures produced a report on a proposed strategy to preserve, revitalize, and promote the Indigenous languages of Canada (Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures, 2005). Some communities are organizing themselves into "Language Authorities" which can be particularly powerful when groups are able to look beyond the imposed boundaries of their "band" or "tribe" and work collaboratively with other groups of a similar language (Ignace, 1998). For an exemplary model of this see Wetzel's (2006) account of the Potawatomi revitalization efforts in the American Indian Quarterly.
Seeking answers to important questions through research is critical to addressing issues of recovering and maintaining Indigenous languages (Kirkness, 2002). Some Aboriginal communities are choosing specific research partnerships, largely with linguistic scholars, to learn about linguistic theory, to archive, and to produce effective learning materials in the language (Anthony et al., 2003; Blair et al., 2002; Czaykowska-Higgins, 2003; Shaw, 2001). Other groups of researchers such as McCarty, Romero, and Zepeda (2006) are choosing to focus their research in language revitalization on the attitudes of young people towards language loss and learning.
Language classes are probably the most common form of language teaching, however, it is not a method that generally creates fluent speakers (Blair et al., 2002, Hinton, 2001b). Classes usually involve teaching the language as a 'subject' in school for children or as evening classes for adults (Ignace, 1998). Unfortunately, this structure is not always effective. For instance, the Arapaho people fully implemented language teaching as a subject in the K-12 school system, but four years later found that it was making no difference in creating new speakers (Greymorning, 2000).
Some communities have taken up bilingual, community-controlled schooling, such as the well-known Rock Point Community School of the Navajo Nation in Northeast Arizona (Boseker, 2000) as a way of maintaining their languages. Although the methods of bilingual education implementation vary, Rock Point is reported to begin with two-thirds instruction in Navajo, then one-half by second grade, in intermediate grades instruction is 15-30% Navajo, and back to half-time for grades 9 to 12 (Reyhner, 1990). Another example of bilingual schooling exists in Thompson, Manitoba, however there is very little printed information available about how the program has been implemented (Thompson Community Resource Guide, 2009). Thomas and Collier (1997) completed one of the largest longitudinal studies ever done on bilingual schooling and conclude that students must receive a minimum of 4-7 years of heritage language only instruction in order to achieve success in bilingual education (albeit troublingly defined as parity with native-English speakers).
Due to the dominance of English in North American society, bilingual programs tend to have less success in reviving languages. Blackfoot activist Darrel Kipp (2000) warns against bilingual schooling strategies due to their goal of transitioning to full English language development. Leanne Hinton (2001a) supports this caution, arguing that bilingual education is better suited to language maintenance than language revitalization, since the concept is based on the principle that the minority language is being used in the home and/or that the child is already fluent in that language. She further expresses that a well-taught bilingual program can serve to reinforce language learning that is taking place at home but that has not been shown to stop the erosion of language loss in communities (Hinton, 2001b). McCarty (2003) admits that although evidence exists for the positive effects of bilingual Indigenous/dominant language education, it has not been enough to reverse language shift, leaving many Indigenous communities turning to a full immersion schooling model when possible.
Many communities engage in summer immersion-style programs (Daniels-Fiss, 2005; Jacobs, 1998; Raloff, 1995), which are usually intensive, one- or two-week sessions that often have the advantage of learning outside the classroom for a daily-life experience of the language. However, there is limited published research on the efficacy of these initiatives, other than to surmise that they could make a positive contribution to larger, wider language revitalization plan for any language group.
Early childhood focused
Te Kōhango Reo or 'language nests' programs, which began in the early 1980s, are early childhood total immersion programs using the traditional language exclusively as the vehicle for interaction and instruction (King, 2001; Te Kohanga Reo, 2003). Te Kōhango Reo is considered one of the most successful language revitalization models in the world (Kirkness, 1998; McClutchie Mita, 2007) and has been an inspiration to efforts both within Aotearoa (New Zealand) and internationally (King, 2001; Yaunches, 2004). Inspired by the success in Aotearoa, a small group of Indigenous Hawaiians travelled to New Zealand in the early 1980s to study Maori's efforts (Warner, 2001). Due mainly to the success of 'Aha Punana Leo (Hawaiian language nests), Hawaii is now seen as a leader in the U.S. and abroad ('Aha Punana Leo, 2006; Wilson & Kamana, 2001). Although the Hawaiian people now have K-12 immersion schools and university-level programs in their language, 'Aha P?nana Leo preschools continue to be the foundation of Hawaiian language revitalization ('Aha Punana Leo, 2006). Now in both Aotearoa and Hawaii, entire generations of speakers have emerged through immersion programming (Warner, 2001; Wilson & Kamana, 2001).
Interestingly, both the Hawaiian and Maori language leaders first studied the French immersion model in Canada before embarking on their journeys toward language revitalization (Benton, 1996; Warner, 2001). Immersion programs for Indigenous languages are now being created at the preschool and elementary levels in select locations across Canada. For example, total immersion programs exist from nursery to Grade 3 in the communities of Onion Lake, SK and Kahnawà:ke, QC (Jacobs, 1998; McKinley, 2003). The community of Adam's Lake in BC offers immersion programs from preschool to Grade 7 in their community-based school (Ignace, 1998; McIvor, 2006). The Government of the Northwest Territories also reported having supported 18 language nest programs over the previous few years (NWT Literacy Council, 2004), certainly the most abundant concentration of these programs found in the country.
The implementation of immersion schools from Kindergarten through graduation from high school is no small feat. The Maoris and then the Hawaiians were the first Indigenous groups to accomplish this goal (Wilson & Kamana, 2001). Since 1997, the Maori have offered primary and secondary instruction exclusively in Maori (with the exception of 'English' as a subject) for ages 5 through 18 (Harrison & Papa, 2005).
What methods are working well?
Hermes (2007) draws upon the work of a number of prominent researchers to assert that "the Indigenous-immersion method is quickly being recognized as one of the most effective tools for restoring Indigenous language..." (p. 58). McCarty (2003) and long-time Indigenous language revitalization advocates Grenoble and Whaley (2006) also support language immersion. However, it is reflected in the literature that total immersion is not always possible (at least initially) and that communities may have to have a graduated or partial-immersion approach (Aguilera & LeCompte, 2007).
Aguilera and LeCompte (2007) studied three Indigenous communities' experiences with language immersion. They emphasize that immersion language learning can be successful without affecting a student's performance in English and advocate for well-educated bilingual and bi-cultural adults who will no doubt contribute in important ways to their nations and society as a whole.
Peter (2003) describes a "Culturally Responsive Evaluation" model created by an "Immersion Team" with the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. It is a tool they continue to refine and describe as an open-ended, culturally-responsive, useful and thorough tool which effectively identifies strengths and weaknesses of their program in order to continue to improve.
Canada is one of the only nations to collect data on language use and ability (Norris, 2003). Because many language revitalization strategies are new, "few longitudinal studies are available to assess the impact on language vitality" (Whaley, 2003, p. 967). Many studies are conducted on the status of Indigenous languages but very few capture the revitalization work being completed, particularly, on the outcomes of such efforts (Wetzel, 2006). Clearly, much more research is needed on the efficacy of Indigenous language revitalization strategies.
What stands in the way of success for Indigenous people's revival and continuation of their languages?
There are several reasons why communities might struggle to revive their languages: low number of speakers; lack of language status; lack of official support; and external social, economical, and political pressures to give up the language (Barrena et al., 2007). The Aboriginal Languages Initiative (ALI), which provides $5 million dollars a year to be divided equally amongst provinces and territories (Andrews Miller, 2008), is helpful but less than adequate. Given that Aboriginal people total 1,172,790 (Statistics Canada, 2008), the ALI funding adds up to a contribution of about $4.25 per person per year. Some provinces and territories supplement this federal funding to make language revitalization more possible for Indigenous people, however, these overtures still fall short of enabling meaningful, realistic resurrection of languages to everyday use within homes and communities. Language revitalization efforts are also hindered by a lack of interest among many young people and the multi-generational shame that exists for many Indigenous nations (McCarty et al., 2006). Many Indigenous people struggle to access the language within them and to teach it to the next generation. The same people who teach in immersion programs and schools often go home and speak English to their children and grandchildren (Greymorning, 2000; Krauss, 1998).
What must be done in order for Indigenous communities to successfully revive and continue their languages?
The Government of Canada must take action now that responsibility has been acknowledged for the residential school experience (Office of the Prime Minister, 2008). While individual payments to victims of residential schools are an important gesture, payment alone will not bring back the languages. The most meaningful impact the government could make is to support initiatives for language revitalization.
Indigenous languages must be given official status by being declared the founding languages of Canada.
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (1996) and the Towards a New Beginning
report completed by the Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures in 2005 outline a number of good recommendations that, if followed, would solve many problems. Items on the recommendation list include the call for national organizing, the creation of a National Centre for Indigenous Languages (NCIL), similar to the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO), in order to coordinate orthographies, learning resources, curriculum, databases of speakers, and research efforts.
A life-span approach to language revitalization is necessary.
Communities must be supported to develop 'whole community' approaches. Indigenous languages must be established as living, working languages in families and communities. Hosting informal dinners, community events, and ceremonies that ensure the language is used, thereby creating an arena for language practice in the community, are some potential methods (Hermes, 2007). An example of this comes from New Mexico, where two Pueblo communities put on a community carnival with different games and food booths run by fluent speakers who reinforce the language with students who want to play a game or order food, thereby successfully bringing the language learning out of the classroom and into the community (Sims, 2005).
Considering the history of Canada and other settler nations around the world, there is much reason to be discouraged about the continuation of Indigenous languages. However, Indigenous nations are growing at unprecedented rates (Statistics Canada, 2008) and there is an increasing serge of community members insisting that their languages must survive. Many communities are developing a growing sophistication in the methods they undertake to revive and continue their languages.
Given sufficient resources and political support, communities have the potential to bring back their languages in one generation. With efforts aimed at every member of the community, regardless of age, the languages could thrive again. The First Peoples of this land have been burdened with the responsibility of ensuring that Indigenous languages do not die, but partners and allies are also needed to ensure this outcome.
The term Indigenous is gaining popularity as an international term asserting the First Peoples certain places. However, the term Aboriginal is still in popular use by many Canadian authors due to its inclusion in the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982. Therefore, both terms are used interchangeably throughout this entry depending on the context of the sentence or the reference being used.
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