Indigenous Languages in Canada: What You Should Know

By: Cheryl

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

On Mar. 31, Canada marks its National Indigenous Languages Day, to honour the diverse languages and cultures native to the land, as well as to promote awareness of Indigenous languages protection and revitalization.

When discussing Indigenous languages as a whole, it’s sometimes common for us to over-simplify them into one single entity, as we do with most concepts that are foreign and unfamiliar to us. However, being a vast country that spreads across the entire continent, Canada’s Indigenous languages might differ from one another just as much as Europe does from Asia. Consequently, the first step in learning and protecting any Indigenous language is to recognise its uniqueness, comprehend its unique characteristics, and get familiar with its struggle for survival.

Language families

In Canada, there are around 70 Indigenous languages spoken by the First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. These languages fall into 12 language families: Algonquian languages, Inuit languages, Athabaskan languages, Siouan languages, Salish languages, Tsimshian languages, Wakashan languages, Iroquoian languages, Michif, Tlingit, Kutenai and Haida. Each language, due to historical contact and geographical distribution, has also evolved into multiple dialects and variants. As of 2022, the most spoken Indigenous languages are Cree (Algonquian), Inuktitut (Inuit) and Innu (Algonquian).

Indigenous language map


Cross-border languages

Many of the Indigenous languages in Canada are cross-border. Like other cross-border diasporas, the ancestors of these people happened to reside on lands that were later claimed by two or more other regimes and thus artificially divided by the national borders. Among Canada’s cross-border Indigenous languages, Algonquian, Iroquoian, Dene, Siouan and Salishan languages are also spoken in the U.S., Inuktitut is spoken in Greenland, and Dene languages are spoken in the U.S. and as far as northern Mexico.

Writing style

Most Indigenous languages in Canada were oral without official writing systems before they came into contact with the Europeans. Myths, history and fables were passed down in the forms of songs and storytelling (hence the importance of traditional ceremonies and gatherings as means of education).  The syllabics for the Ojibway and Cree languages were developed by a missionary named James Evans in the 1800s and have since been used to write a variety of Indigenous languages in Canada.

Indigenous syllabics


Linguistic features

One of the most noticeable features of Indigenous languages in Canada is that they are primarily polysynthetic. Polysynthetic languages usually have long compound words that express complex meanings that would otherwise require an entire sentence in other languages. For example, in Inuktitut, the sentence “I’ll have to go to the airport” can be expressed with one long word: qangatasuukkuvimmuuriaqalaaqtunga.

Other grammatical features include animate and inanimate nouns. Similar to how European languages divide nouns by gender, in Ojibway, nouns are classified by their animative nature, where humans and animals are considered animate and objects inanimate. For polysemous words, sometimes their properties change with their meanings: “mitig” is animate when it means “tree,” and becomes inanimate when it takes the definition of “stick.”

Language protection

From the over 50 vocabularies that describe snow in Inuktitut to treating all living beings with the same grammatical respect in Ojibway, each Indigenous language brings a unique worldview of how humans describe the nature around them. Without recognition and preservation, these unique features. and perspectives they bring to the world will be lost. Due to its oral nature, once an Indigenous language is lost, the effort that will need to be put into recovering and reviving its culture is immeasurable. Changes in the language speakers’ living environment and condition, such as climate change that reduces the amount of snow and ice in the Inuit communities, can also lead to the declining of certain vocabularies and expressions. Certain vocabulary and phrases may become less common due to changes in the living conditions of language speakers. For example, climate change can lower the amount of snow and ice in the Inuit region the use of those expressions may decline.

In order to save Indigenous languages from extinction, efforts on a legislative level need to be made. Since language learning is most efficient and effective with young children, implementation of Indigenous language education is needed for the K-12 system. Indigenous language in higher education is also in high demand among Indigenous communities.  Making sure higher education is provided in Indigenous students’ first languages can be a crucial step to increasing the presence and representation of the Indigenous population in the labour market in the relevant industries. This is also a right that researchers and scholars have been fighting for decades because language is such a broad issue that intersects with all the other fields, such as medicine, law, or health care.

To read more about legislation and education rights of Inuktitut language and the language defenders, click here: