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What you should know about this study

This study is based mainly on 1996 and 2001 Census of Population data. The study population covers those individuals who self-identified as Aboriginal on the census. Some caution is required in comparing Aboriginal populations between censuses, due to ethnic mobility and fluidity in self-identity among the Aboriginal population. Also, intercensal comparisons of Aboriginal language data can be affected by differentials in coverage, incomplete enumeration, reporting, content and questions, which have been controlled for where feasible.

Aboriginal language speaker: The ability to speak and to converse in an Aboriginal language. Although respondents were instructed to report only those languages in which they can carry on a conversation of some length on various topics, ability is based on the respondent’s own assessment. Since varying degrees of fluency may be represented in the data, it is suggested that some caution be exercised in considering the implications of second language acquisition for transmission and continuity.

Mother tongue/first language speaker: Mother tongue refers to the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood by the individual. First language speakers are those persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue who report the ability to speak an Aboriginal language. In a small percentage of cases (5%, or 11,000, in 2001), respondents with an Aboriginal mother tongue did not report that they could speak an Aboriginal language. Although the Aboriginal mother tongue population and first language speakers are not strictly equivalent concepts, the two terms are used interchangeably in this article.

Second language speakers: For purposes of this study, these individuals are defined as persons who report the ability to speak an Aboriginal language, but who do not have an Aboriginal mother tongue.

Home language: In this study, home language refers to the language spoken most often at home by the individual. In the 2001 Census, a new section on languages spoken on a regular basis at home was added. (Because of changes in the question, the 2001 “spoken most often” measure may not be directly comparable to previous censuses.)

Index of Ability/Index of Second Language Acquisition: compares the number of people who report being able to speak the language with the number who have that Aboriginal language as a mother tongue. If, for every 100 people with a specific Aboriginal mother tongue, more than 100 persons in the overall population have the ability to speak that language, then some have learned it as a second language.

N.B.: As indirect estimates of second language acquisition, the index of second language acquisition and the estimated intercensal growth in the numbers of second language speakers assume that all persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue also reported the ability to speak an Aboriginal language. As such they serve only as indicators, not as precise measures.

Index of continuity:  measures the number of people who speak the language at home for every 100 persons who speak it as their mother tongue.

Viability of Aboriginal languages

Aboriginal languages differ significantly in their state, and in their trends and outlook, and as such they can be classified accordingly. On the basis of a classification by Kinkade,1 they can be divided into five groupings: already extinct; near extinction; endangered; viable but with a small population base; and viable with a large population.

Near extinction: These languages may be beyond the possibility of revival.  As only a few elderly people speak them, there may only be enough time to record and archive them.

Endangered:  These languages are spoken by enough people to make survival a possibility, given sufficient community interest and concerted educational programs.  They tend to have small populations, older speakers, and lower rates of language transmission. Many of the smaller languages, often with far fewer than 1,000 persons, have very low prospects for on-going transmission across generations.  This is particularly relevant to the situation in British Columbia where many of the languages found there have very low prospects for continuity and are either endangered (e.g. Nishga, Haida) or near extinction.

Viable but Small : These languages have generally more than 1,000 speakers and are spoken in isolated or well-organized communities with strong self-awareness.  In these communities, language is considered one of the important marks of identity. They can be considered viable if their continuity is high and they have relatively young speakers, for example, Attikamek and Dene.

Viable Large: These languages have a large enough population base that long-term survival is likely assured. Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway are the only viable languages with large population bases. Large or small, viable languages tend to have relatively young speakers, compared to endangered languages. Census data are available for viable and endangered languages but are not available separately for languages near extinction owing to their small numbers of speakers.

  1. Kinkade, M.D. 1991. “The Decline of Native Languages in Canada” in Endangered Languages. Eds. Robert H. Robins and Eugenius M. Uhlenbeck. Published with the Authority of the Permanent International Committee of Linguists (CIPL). Canada: Berg Publishers Limited.

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