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Home Language of Today, Mother Tongue of Tomorrow

A crucial element affecting the long-term viability of a language is simply how many people speak it at home. The language that is most often spoken within the home is more likely to become the mother tongue of the next generation; if not, the transmission from one generation to the next will likely be broken. Indeed, as the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples concluded, the viability or continuity of a language is dependent on it being used on a daily basis, ideally as the primary home language.

Long-term declines in language continuity translate into decreasing shares of children acquiring an Aboriginal mother tongue, and increasingly older mother tongue populations. Erosion of home language use has seen the proportion of children (ages 0 to 19 years) in the Aboriginal mother tongue population fall from 41% in 1986 to just 32% in 2001, while the percentage of adults aged 55 and over increased from 12% to 17%.

These trends indicate that many Aboriginal languages – even larger ones – will be confronted with the challenges of continuity for the next generation.  In 2001, just 13% of the Aboriginal population reported that they spoke an Aboriginal language most often in the home, while an additional 5% reported using one regularly. This proportion is lower than the rates for people who can converse in an Aboriginal language as well as those for mother tongue speakers (24% and 21%, respectively). For example, even though Ojibway has the third largest mother tongue population in Canada, its use as the major home language is diminishing.

The prospects of transmitting a language as a mother tongue can be assessed using an index of continuity, which measures the number of people who speak the language at home for every 100 persons who speak it as their mother tongue. Over the period 1981 to 2001, the index of continuity decreased from about 76 to 61. Both men and women in practically all age groups experienced a decline in language continuity as their home language use shifted from Aboriginal to non-Aboriginal languages. The trend was most pronounced for women, especially those in the child-bearing and working-age years.

However, information on languages spoken “regularly” at home (as distinct from “most often”) began to be collected with the 2001 Census. In 2001, while the number of people speaking an Aboriginal language most often in the home was 129,300, just over 50,000 additional people were speaking one at home on a “regular” basis. This information could be particularly relevant to endangered languages, which tend to be spoken “regularly” at home but not “most often.” For example, only 10% of persons reporting Haida as a home language speak it “most often”, while 90% speak it “regularly.” In contrast, the majority of viable languages tend to be spoken in the home on a “most often” rather than on a “regular” basis, for example Inuktitut (82%), Cree (69%) and Ojibway (56%).1

  1. Norris, M.J. and L. Jantzen. 2003. “Aboriginal Languages in Canada’s Urban Areas: Characteristics, Considerations and Implications.” In Not Strangers in These Parts: Urban Aboriginal Peoples. Eds. David Newhouse and Evelyn Peters.  Ottawa: Privy Council Office.

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