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Indigenous Languages in Canada – What Speech Therapists Need to Know

This post was written with contributions from our volunteer, Isabelle McEwen.


As a Speech Therapy clinic, we understand the importance of getting your message across and feeling heard. For many Indigenous communities across Canada, however, this has been exceptionally difficult in terms of social justice and equality (you can read through our blog series on Indigenous culture and current affairs here or check out a video summary here). Not only are Indigenous people struggling to have their concerns addressed by the public, but their traditional ways of communicating are at risk of disappearing.


Despite being the first peoples on this land, Indigenous languages have never been prioritized by the settler society in Canada – at times, they have even been persecuted through residential schools in which Indigenous children were abused for speaking their languages and forced to learn English or French. As a result of this disconnect from their culture, nearly all Indigenous languages in Canada are considered either at risk or endangered, with some already extinct.


We want to bring awareness to this issue since many non-Indigenous Canadians may be unaware. In doing this, we hope that more attention will be given to language preservation efforts that are currently underway. Keep reading to the end of the post to find ways that Speech Language Pathologists can also do their part.


*Note: Our team is made up of non-Indigenous individuals. We acknowledge that we may make errors along the way as a result, but we are committed to always learning and unlearning. We encourage you to seek out Indigenous voices to hear their perspectives.

An Overview from Past to Present

As of 2016, there are between 60 to 80 Indigenous languages spoken in Canada with the most popular being Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway. The number varies because linguists disagree on which languages are distinct and which may be dialects. Names and spellings of languages also vary by location – for example, Ojibwe is also referred to as Ojibwa, Ojibway, and Chippewa.


The following graphic shows where Indigenous languages are spoken across Canada. You'll notice categories called "families", which mean that the languages under them share a similar ancestor and linguistic features:



Not only are there many spoken Indigenous languages, but some communities also have their own signed languages. Plains Sign Language is probably the most well-known Indigenous sign language in Canada and the United States. Others include Plateau Sign Language, used by the Salish, Ktunaxa and other Plateau peoples, and Inuit Sign Language. These languages were used not only by Deaf individuals, but hearing people as well.


American Sign Language and Québec Sign Language have almost entirely replaced Indigenous sign languages in Canada, though there are a small number of people who use these languages and are fighting to keep the language in use.


Cultural Significance of Language

Many Indigenous cultures pass on information and histories through oral traditions, such as storytelling. Knowledge about cultural practices, laws, and the environment is passed on through these traditions.


Since many of these Indigenous communities did not keep written records of this information, this means an unknown amount of precious information has been lost, with more at risk today.

This loss brings with it a separation from one's identity, history, and culture. Since most speakers of endangered languages are elders, this also puts pressure on the younger generations to quickly learn and document them before they disappear, which can be emotionally taxing.


What's in a Name?

Many Indigenous cultures have a deeply meaningful relationship to naming practices. Indigenous societies can have clan and spirit names, as well as personal names which may actually change as one grows and accomplishes new things. Their names can be bestowed by parents, elders, or important members of the community. It is not always as simple as inheriting the surname of one's father.


During the era of residential schools, the names of Indigenous children were forcibly changed to assimilate them to colonial society. Indian agents were commonly the ones to change children’s names to Christian alternatives. In many cases, traditional Indigenous naming practices were criminalized.

Oftentimes, the original Indigenous names for territories and communities were misspelled by non-Indigenous speakers, or renamed entirely, to appeal to the anglophone and francophone societies. This further contributed to the erasure of Indigenous culture and history.


Learning the original names for places and communities can be a step toward decolonization. For example, Toronto is said to be derived from "tkaronto", a Mohawk word meaning "trees standing in water". You can listen to the pronunciation and a brief explanation of this name from Professor Ryan DeCaire here.


Current Revitalization Efforts

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada included a number of Calls to Action in its 2015 report regarding Indigenous languages. This included calls for the federal government to enact an Aboriginal Languages Act. They also called upon Canadian post-secondary institutions to create degree and diploma programs in Indigenous languages.

The Indigenous Languages Act in Canada in 2019 came as a response to this, which did recognize Indigenous language rights. It claims to support and promote Indigenous languages among other goals, but some Indigenous individuals do not find this to be enough.


The Indigenous Languages Act doesn't implement the same rights and obligations that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does for English and French. For example, the right for Indigenous children to be educated in their own languages in public schools is a major concern that has not yet been addressed.


There are a number of grassroots organizations that have already been fighting to preserve Indigenous languages:

How to be Allies as Speech Therapists

The field of Speech Language Pathology may not have the influence needed to create policy changes at a federal level, but we can take small actions to spread awareness of these issues and promote the use of Indigenous languages. Each client interaction can create a ripple effect of change, so don't underestimate the scope of your influence. Here are some ways we can be allies to the Indigenous communities fighting to maintain their linguistic independence:

  • Advocate for bilingualism - Despite numerous findings that show speaking multiple languages is beneficial for children, some families might still question if bilingualism can negatively affect a child's development. You can do your part to dispel any misconceptions. If asked for your opinion, you can also encourage families speak their Indigenous language around their child if that is available to them.

  • Recognize Indigenous English dialectsIn a previous blog post, we discussed how Speech Therapists who are unfamiliar with African American English (AAE) may assume Black children are making grammatical errors or have a language delay. Similarly, Canada and other countries around the world have Indigenous English dialects that formed from preexisting vocabulary and accents carrying over to English.

Speech Therapists should try to familiarize themselves with these elements to prevent "false positives" of language errors in Indigenous children and adults. For example, the Ojibwe language does not have gender markers the way English does, so substituting pronouns could be something that an Ojibwe person carries into English.

  • Have Indigenous language resources on hand – Familiarize yourself with resources for Indigenous language learning so you can use them yourself or recommend them to clients if you are asked. First Voices is a great website that has information on 75 different languages including games, songs and language learning materials. You can also reference this list of resources from the Government of Canada that also has links to university and college programs that teach Indigenous languages.

There is a lot of work to be done in order for Indigenous Canadians to get the language equality they deserve, and this post does not cover all the nuances of their linguistic struggles. But we hope this has been a helpful introduction to the importance of preserving Indigenous languages and that you will use this knowledge to support these efforts in any way you can.


Sources:

Ball, J. (2009). Indigenous young children’s language development: Promising Practices and Needs (dissertation). Canadian Issues.


First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres, 2021.


Government of Canada; Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. (2019, September 5). Language and culture. Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1524495846286/1557513199083.


Indigenous Languages in Canada. Gallant, 2020. Canadian Encyclopedia.


Languages and culture. Assembly of First Nations. (n.d.). https://www.afn.ca/policy-sectors/languages-and-culture/.


Peltier, S. (2009). First Nations English dialects in young children: Assessment issues and supportive interventions. Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development (pp. 1-10). London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Retrieved from http://www.literacyencyclopedia.ca/pdfs/topic.php?topId=276


Sekwan Fontaine, L., Leitch, D., & Bear Nicholas, A. (2019, May 9). How Canada's proposed indigenous Languages Act fails to deliver. Yellowhead Institute. https://yellowheadinstitute.org/2019/05/09/how-canadas-proposed-indigenous-languages-act-fails-to-deliver/


The Indian Act Naming Policies. Indigenous Corporate Training, 2014.

 

Andalusia Speech Therapy has multiple clinics across Ontario and offers virtual speech therapy to anywhere in the world. Contact us for more information.

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