Language Advocacy Day 2024: Exploring Aspects of Indigenous Language Revitalization

By: Cheryl

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

The protection and revitalization of Indigenous languages in Canada have been a vital part of its goal to celebrate and preserve the diverse cultural heritages. The ways to achieve this goal, however, vary from Nation to Nation, province to province and organization to organization. On Feb. 21, as the sponsor and co-host of the webinar Language Keepers: Celebrating Indigenous + Newcomer Language Revitalization, MCIS was both honoured and delighted to facilitate a discussion exploring insights on this topic with our peer organizations, language professionals, scholars and individuals working in the language industry.

In the morning panel, we were joined by Dr. Elaine Gold, the executive director of The Canadian Language Museum; Sarah Onyango, radio and television producer and host of the monthly African cultural program Fontonfrom on Rogers Television Channel 22 in Ottawa; Thea Harris, language program manager at First People’s Cultural Council (FPCC) supporting strategy-specific language programs; Laila Joud, Communications Manager at Refugee 613; and Rebekah R. Ingram, who received her PhD from the School of Linguistics and Language Studies at Carleton University. Each of them shared their first-hand experiences, either as an immigrant, a language professional, or someone has been dedicated to the work of language preservation.

A community effort

To Indigenous communities, language revitalization is more than just a slogan. In many of the First Nations’ cultures, language is more than simply a tool of communication: it’s deeply in their relationship with land and nature. Harris, Language Program Manager at the FPCC, emphasizes that the knowledge and worldviews expressed through languages are crucial to the resilience and collective well-being of the First Nations people.

“Studies on resilience have identified language, traditional beliefs, and culture as significant factors of success.” – Thea Harris, language program manager at FPCC

“Studies on resilience have identified language, traditional beliefs, and culture as significant factors of success.” – Thea Harris, language program manager at FPCC

The work that needs to be done, however, is more complex than simply hiring a few teachers and starting a language course. Going against and even reversing the language shift requires community effort and an entire eco-system, said Harris. Successful revitalization requires the development of comprehensive plans and community infrastructure, which calls for specialized skills, dedicated staff and ongoing and sustained support. Long-term planning and funding, community effort and immersive language education are the foundations that shape the future of language revitalization work.

Preserving lost memories

With knowledge holders and fluent speakers aging, the work of Indigenous language revitalization is against the clock. Ingram, Associate Researcher at Carleton University, showed us a faster route to engaging the younger generations.

Apart from language education through classes and cultural practices, Ingram emphasized the creative use of technology in passing down Indigenous knowledge. In one of the summer camps for children that Ingram worked with, kids were taught how to use drones to take photos and videos. They were then sent to locations they took interest in, used their drones to document the terrains and landscapes, brought their findings back to Indigenous language speakers and learned the stories and history behind what they’ve found for themselves. In some other initiatives, children were taken fishing, used underwater drones to spy on the fish and learned from Indigenous knowledge holders about the types of fish they harvested. From first-hand experiences in the field and getting in touch with nature, kids received immersive learning opportunities to vocabularies directly related to Indigenous life and cultural practices.

These experiences are particularly effective and important, because Indigenous languages are the encyclopedia that preserves long-lost memories about geographical changes on the land that’s now Canada. According to Ingram, some of these memories are still reflected on the location names with Indigenous origins: The origin of the word “Canada” came from an Indigenous word that means “village,” “Ontario” came from a word that describes “main body of water/big lake” and “Quebec” can be traced back to an Algonquin expression “the narrows,” which refers to where the St. Lawrence River starts to narrow. In some other cases, the geographic attributes in the name don’t exist anymore, but through language, Indigenous cultures are able to document that once upon a time, there were rapids that existed where the name describes. The movement of rivers, the land and how it functions across the seasons, the sky and its celestial objects and the forests where animals reside are all kept alive in the words, grammars and unique views of Indigenous languages, in a purely colloquial form.

Canadian location names and their Indigenous origins

Canadian location names and their Indigenous origins

Neglected perspectives

Another panelist, Dr. Gold from the Canadian Language Museum, provided new perspectives that are often neglected when discussing the speed and extent of growth and decline of a language. When evaluating the scope of a language being spoken in Canada, people often look at the total number of its speakers, but it’s the number of people who speak it at home that truly represents the health of the language and its status. Another dimension to pay attention to is the languages that are used on small businesses’ street signs because it’s the daily usage of minority languages in these scenarios out of the domestic and work environments that keeps them alive and evolving.

A more useful tool than museums to preserve languages that we often forget, said Gold, is libraries. Unlike museums, libraries are located in every neighbourhood and are free of charge, making them easy access for newcomers and minority language speakers to bridge into the community and gather information. However, a significant challenge is the lack of age-appropriate reading materials in minority languages in libraries. There are plenty of valuable sources of reading materials available for a four-year-old, said Gold, but these materials are limited and scarce when the readers’ age escalates to 14, let alone reading material for college students and working professionals. This challenge hinders the survival of Indigenous languages more than any other because, unlike newcomer languages, one cannot learn Indigenous languages from foreign publications.

In essence, the endeavor to protect and revive Indigenous languages in Canada is multifaceted, requiring long-term support and innovative approaches. As highlighted through discussions at the webinar, it’s evident that language revitalization extends beyond mere education; it embodies a holistic community effort.Preserving Indigenous languages not only safeguards cultural heritage but also ensures the continuation of invaluable knowledge embedded within them, making it imperative for diverse stakeholders to collaborate and prioritize this vital endeavor for the collective benefit of Canadian society.