Dozens of Aboriginal languages near death
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Sunday, November 8, 2009 12:35PM PST
It may be spoken by thousands, but a United Nations agency says Micmac, an Atlantic Canadian language, could go the way of Latin and die, only to be studied through books by historians and no longer spoken among people.
And it's just one of many endangered languages, according to UNESCO, an agency dedicated to education and culture. A new report from the agency lists 88 of Canada's Aboriginal languages as critically close to becoming extinct, and predicts they likely won't be around in the next century.
It's "like little light bulbs going out across Canada," Alana Johns, a linguistics professor who also teaches Aboriginal languages at the University of Toronto told Canada AM's Beverly Thomson.
Canada has the fifth highest number of endangered languages in the world. Only India, Indonesia, China and the U.S. have more.
Often, Aboriginal languages serve as modern day links to the history and culture of the peoples that speak them. Cultural rituals like performing arts and crafts depend on language to be passed down from generation to generation, and when a language is lost, parts of the traditions associated with that language are also wiped out, the report says.
A Statistics Canada report published two years ago says the irreversible damage has already been done to 10 once-flourishing Aboriginal languages that have become extinct over the last 100 years.
Most of the endangered languages on the list are in B.C. and Ontario and the numbers of speakers are dangerously low.
Only 55 people speak Southern Haida in B.C. Their average age is 62-years-old. In Ontario, Munsee only has 10 speakers left with an average age of 52 years old.
When these surviving speakers die, their language -- and all the history, culture, and traditions associated with it - will die out with them.
Why languages die
Languages or dialects start to disappear when the number of native speakers plummets, often because they switch to a more dominant language in their region. In Canada this means many First Nations people switched to English and started speaking it to their children instead of an Aboriginal language.
Johns says Canada's residential school history has had a damaging effect on Aboriginal languages today.
"The education the churches and the school system brought (to Aboriginal children) was in the major languages, English and French," she said.
"Later, Aboriginal languages were introduced into the schools but the support wasn't given in terms of teacher training materials, the things that you needed to actually keep the languages going."
Inuktitut, Cree and Ojibwa are the only three Canadian Aboriginal languages that are not on the list and are expected to survive, because they are still spoken by a critical mass of people.
An estimated 35,000 people speak Inuktitut across Canada's north, and 117,000 speak Cree, North America's most spoken aboriginal language.
That means even a language like Micmac, which has 6,850 speakers today, and a relatively young population at an average age of 31, likely won't survive the next 100 years.
UNESCO says half of the world's 6,700 languages and dialects could vanish by the end of the century if governments don't take action now.
"A public policy would be good if it was in terms of cultural awareness, of these languages within Canadian cultures," says Johns.
Speakers are part of the solution
But she says that ultimately, the answers have to come from communities themselves.
UNESCO points to Winnipeg's Yiddish Women's Reading Circle as one of the world's leading success stories helping to preserve a language.
Members of the club read and talk about the books in Yiddish in order to teach themselves the language. UNESCO says the Winnipeg program has helped people improve their language skills, and led to the publishing of a translation of Yiddish literature into English, which helps bring Yiddish culture to English speakers.
UNESCO says the book club is a great example of how communities whose language is endangered can take action now, and help preserve their language with little more than the cost of books and a few hours a month.
But Johns says communities need to act fast.
"If something isn't done soon, some of them will disappear," she said.
Experts from around the world will discuss how to save languages at the Endangered Languages Information and Infrastructure Workshop in Utah next week.