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Aboriginal Languages in Canada: Emerging Trends and Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition

By Mary Jane Norris

Canada enjoys a rich diversity of peoples, cultures and languages. In addition to French and English, the country’s two official languages, and numerous immigrant languages, there are many languages indigenous to Canada itself. Indeed, across Canada there are some 50 or more individual languages belonging to 11 Aboriginal language families. These languages reflect distinctive histories, cultures and identities linked to family, community, the land and traditional knowledge. For many First Nation, Inuit and Métis people, these languages are at the very core of their identity.

Aboriginal peoples, though, are confronted with the fact that many of their languages are disappearing, an issue which may have profound implications. Over the past 100 years or more, at least ten once-flourishing languages have become extinct. However, declining trends in the intergenerational transmission of Aboriginal mother tongues are being offset to a degree by the fact that Aboriginal languages are also being learned as second languages.

Only one in four Aboriginal people speaks an Aboriginal language
Home Language of Today, Mother Tongue of Tomorrow
Aboriginal second language speakers
Second language learners impact endangered Aboriginal languages
Learning Aboriginal language is important to most parents
What you should know about this study

Only one in four Aboriginal people speaks an Aboriginal language

Currently, only a minority of the Aboriginal population in Canada is able to speak or understand an Aboriginal language. According to 2001 Census data, of the 976,300 people who identified themselves as Aboriginal, 235,000 (or 24%) reported that they were able to conduct a conversation in an Aboriginal language.1

This represents a sharp drop from 29% in 19962, and appears to confirm most research which suggests that there has been substantial erosion in the use of Aboriginal languages in recent decades. Another definite indicator of the erosion is the declining percentage of the Aboriginal population whose mother tongue is Aboriginal. In 2001, just 21% of Aboriginals in Canada had an Aboriginal mother tongue, down from 26% in 1996.

However, the decline in mother tongue population has been offset to some degree by the fact that many Aboriginal people have learned an Aboriginal language as a second language. In 2001, more people speak an Aboriginal language than had an Aboriginal mother tongue (239,600 versus 203,300). This suggests that some speakers must have learned their Aboriginal language as a second language. It appears that this is especially the case for young people.
Learning an Aboriginal language as a second language cannot be considered a substitute for learning it as a first language.3 Nevertheless, increasing the number of second language speakers is part of the process of language revitalization, and may go some way towards preventing, or at least slowing, the rapid erosion and possible extinction of endangered languages. Indeed, the acquisition of an Aboriginal language as a second language may be the only option available to many Aboriginal communities if transmission from parent to child is no longer viable.

As well, in gaining the ability to speak the language of their parents or grandparents, young Aboriginal people will be able to communicate with their older family members in their traditional language. It is also thought that the process itself of learning an Aboriginal language may contribute to increased self-esteem and community well-being, as well as cultural continuity.4

Aboriginal second language speakers

According to the 2001 Census, 20% of the total population who could speak an Aboriginal language – over 47,100 people – had learned it as a second language. And it appears that second language learning has been on the rise. The index of second language acquisition indicates that for every 100 people with an Aboriginal mother tongue, the number of people able to speak an Aboriginal language increased from 117 to about 120 speakers between 1996 and 2001 (Table 1). It appears that growing numbers of second language speakers may increasingly be offsetting the declining size of mother tongue populations.

Table 1  Young Aboriginal language speakers are increasingly likely to acquire their language as a second language rather than as a mother tongue

What is perhaps even more significant to their long-term viability is the fact that second language speakers tend to be considerably younger than people who learned an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue. In 2001, for example, about 45% of second language speakers were under age 25, compared to 38% of mother tongue speakers (Chart 1).

Chart 1  Second language learners tend to be much younger than the people who learned an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue

Second language learners impact endangered Aboriginal languages

Over the 20-year period from 1981 to 2001, most Aboriginal languages, whether considered viable or endangered, experienced long-term declines in their continuity (see "What you should know about this study" for definitions). And not surprisingly, the endangered ones suffered the most. Among endangered British Columbia languages like Haida and Tlingit, for example, continuity levels declined to practically nil by 2001; indeed, each of these languages currently has fewer than 200 first language speakers. At the same time, while the more viable languages like Inuktitut have retained their linguistic vitality, several larger viable languages like Cree and Ojibway saw steady long-term declines in continuity over the two decades.

Depending on the state of a given language – that is, whether it is viable or endangered – a number of different growth patterns were observed between 1996 and 2001. In particular, younger generations of Aboriginal language speakers are increasingly likely to acquire their language, especially if it is endangered, as a second language rather than as a mother tongue. For example, the Tlingit language family has one of the oldest mother tongue populations, but the index of second language acquisition and average age of speakers indicates that two people (usually younger) speak the language to every one person with a mother tongue. These indicators suggest that younger generations are more likely to learn Tlingit as a second language.

Generally, among most endangered languages, there is an overall decline in the ability to speak the language because any gains in second language speakers are not sufficiently large enough to offset the losses of mother tongue speakers.  However, for some endangered Aboriginal languages, it appears that the speaker population may be growing due to a concerted effort to learn them as a second language.

This appears to be the case of the smaller Salish languages, which experienced a 5% drop in mother tongue population from 1996 to 2001, while simultaneously posting an impressive 17% increase in total number of speakers. At the same time, the average age of all Salish speakers was notably younger at 42 years of age, compared to 50 years for the mother tongue population. (Table 2)

Table 2   For some Aboriginal languages, gains in second language speakers may be offsetting the decline in mother tongue populations

This pattern also applies to a number of viable languages in which second language speakers appear to be adding to the total number of speakers. Languages experiencing these growth patterns between 1996 and 2001 include Attikamek, with a 21% increase in population able to speak the language compared to a 19% growth in its mother tongue population. Similarly, the number of people able to speak Dene increased 11%, while its mother tongue population increased only 7%. Other languages with higher gains in ability to speak compared to gains as a mother tongue include Micmac, Dakota/Sioux, Montagnais/Naskapi, and Inuktitut.

In fact, among some of the most endangered languages, second language speakers account for over half of the speaking population. In 2001, for example, 57% of those who spoke Tlingit as well as 54% of those who spoke Haida and 52% who spoke some of the smaller Salish languages were second language learners. Similarly, among practically all of the endangered languages, as well as many languages considered to be “not quite viable, approaching endangered” or "uncertain", a minimum of a third of all speakers are second language speakers. These included the smaller Algonquin languages, Malecite, Blackfoot, Carrier, Tsimshian, Kutenai, Nishga, and Shuswap.

It also appears that young people make up a substantial share of Aboriginal second language speakers among endangered languages. In 2001, for example, among children under age 15 who could speak an endangered language, 71% learned it as a second language (Chart 2).

Chart 2  In younger age groups, second language learners make up the majority of people speaking endangered Aboriginal languages

In contrast, the prevalence of second language speakers declines with increasing age among both endangered and viable-language speakers, a pattern that is not surprising since older generations of Aboriginal peoples are more likely to have an Aboriginal mother tongue. Among speakers aged 65 years and older, the share of second language speakers drops to just 17% of those speaking an endangered language, and 11% of those speaking a viable language.

However, for some of the most endangered languages, high shares of second language speakers do not always imply younger speakers. In fact, populations of second language speakers are also aging along with mother tongue populations. For example, in 2001 virtually none of the 500 people who could speak Tsimshian were under the age of 25, even though 32% were second language speakers.

Both on- and off-reserve, second language learners are making gains

Interestingly, it also appears that younger generations living off-reserve, and especially those in urban areas, are increasingly likely to learn an Aboriginal language as a second language rather than as a mother tongue. Among registered Indians off-reserve, 165 children aged 10 to 14 are able to speak a first nation language for every 100 children with a first nation mother tongue.5 This suggests that a substantial number of children learn their traditional language as a second language.

Of course, the issue is even more salient in Aboriginal communities (that is, reserves, Inuit communities and settlements). In 1996, about two-thirds of comparable communities reported that most Aboriginal speakers had learned the language as their mother tongue; by 2001, the proportion had dropped to less than half. In contrast, the number of communities where many speakers had acquired it as their second language doubled from 8.5% to 17%. All told, about 33% of communities enumerated in 2001 could be classified as being in transition from a mother tongue to a second language population.6

Naturally, families impact the transmission of an Aboriginal language from parent to child, be it as a mother tongue or as a second language. The vast majority of Aboriginal children aged 5 to 14 (over 90%) can converse in their parent’s or parents’ language, with many having learned it as a second language. Children most likely to learn an Aboriginal language as a second language are from linguistically mixed families, live in urban areas, or speak an endangered language.7 For example, while 70% of children with Salish language parentage could speak their parent(s)’ language, only about 10 percent had acquired it as a mother tongue.8

Learning Aboriginal language is important to most parents

Recent trends in the acquisition of Aboriginal languages as second languages point to an increased recognition that speaking an Aboriginal language is important. According to the 2001 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, parents of 60% of Aboriginal children in non-reserve areas believed it was very important or somewhat important for their children to speak and understand an Aboriginal language.

Parents are not alone in thinking that learning an Aboriginal language is important. Both Aboriginal adults and youth, including those in non-reserve areas, share the same opinion. For example, among the off-reserve population in Saskatchewan, 65% of Aboriginal adults and 63% of Aboriginal youth aged 15 to 24 thought that learning, relearning, or maintaining their language was “somewhat important” or “very important”. Similarly, in the Yukon, language learning was considered important by even higher proportions of Aboriginal adults and youth (78% and 76%, respectively).9

The attitudes of youth are critical to the future of languages, particularly as parents of the next generation. Furthermore, unlike older generations, Aboriginal youth today have to contend with the prevailing influence of English and French through the mass media, popular culture, and other aspects of their daily lives such as education and work. At the same time, their traditional language can serve a different role than that of mainstream languages: it can be a means to the identity of the speakers of a community ... fostering family ties, maintaining social relationships, preserving historical links...”10

An in-depth study about the values and attitudes of Inuit youth concerning Inuktitut and English found that most young Inuit, even those who thought that they were “good” or “excellent” at speaking Inuktitut, expressed concern that as they use and hear English more frequently, they are losing their ability to speak Inuktitut well.11  Many also report speaking English more than when they were children. At the same time, many youth associate Inuktitut with their identity, traditional knowledge, and culture; for some, losing Inuktitut can affect their sense of belonging, leading to feelings of marginalization and exclusion. While youth are making a concerted effort to use Inuktitut in daily activities, they also identify a need for support through family, community and education, with opportunities to learn, hear and use it.


Although most Aboriginal language speakers learned their language as a mother tongue, many factors contribute to the erosion of intergenerational transmission of Aboriginal languages, including increasing migration between Aboriginal communities and cities, and to and from reserves; linguistic intermarriage; the prevailing influence of English and French in daily life; and the legacy of the residential school system.12 Furthermore, for most Aboriginal children, the “ideal” conditions for acquiring an Aboriginal mother tongue – with both parents having an Aboriginal mother tongue, and residing in an Aboriginal community – are not always feasible.

These pressures and demographics increase the likelihood that a significant share of the next generation of Aboriginal language speakers will be second language learners. Most importantly, though, it will be the desire and interest in learning Aboriginal languages today that will help shape the growth of future generations of Aboriginal language speakers, both first and second language learners.


  1. Data for 2001 are the most recent available at the time of publication. Language data from the 2006 Census of Population will be released in  December 2007.
  2. Part of this decrease over the period 1996 to 2001 is also attributable to the increased tendency of people to identify themselves as Aboriginal. This is especially the case among persons of Métis heritage, only a small proportion of whom report being able to speak an Aboriginal language. See Statistics Canada, 2003. Aboriginal Peoples of Canada: A demographic profile, 2001 Census. Analysis Series, 2001 Census. Catalogue no. 96F0030XIE2001007.
  3. See Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), Gathering Strength (Vol. 3) and Perspectives and Realities (Vol. 4). Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada.
  4. Canadian Heritage, 2005. "Towards a New Beginning: A Foundation Report for a Strategy to Revitalize First Nation, Inuit and Métis Languages and Cultures." Report to the Minister of Canadian Heritage by The Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures, June 2005. Ottawa. Cat. No. CH4-96/2005; Chandler, M. J. 2006. “Cultural Continuity in the Face of Radical Social Change: Language Preservation as a Protective Factor against Suicide in First Nations Youth.” University of British Columbia. Paper presented at Raising our Voices, Language Conference, Cornwall, Ontario, 15 August 2006.
  5. Calculations based on 1996 Census data. Norris, M.J. and L. Jantzen. 2002.  Poster and PowerPoint Presentation “From Generation to Generation: Survival and Maintenance of Canada’s Aboriginal Languages within Families, Communities and Cities.” Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and Canadian Heritage.
  6. Norris, M.J. 2006. “Aboriginal Languages in Canada: Trends and Perspectives on Maintenance and Revitalization” In Aboriginal Policy Research: Moving Forward, Making a Difference. Eds. J. P. White, S. Wingert, D. Beavon and P.Maxim. Thompson Educational Publishing, Toronto.
  7. Norris, M.J. 2003. “From Generation to generation: Survival and Maintenance of Canada’s Aboriginal Languages within Families, Communities and Cities.” In Maintaining the Links: Language, Identity and the Lands. Proceedings of the 7th Conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, Broome, Western Australia: 22-24 September, 2003.
  8. Norris, M.J. and K. MacCon. 2003. “Aboriginal Language, Transmission and Maintenance in Families: Results of An Intergenerational and Gender-Based Analysis for Canada, 1996.” In Aboriginal Conditions: Research as a Foundation for Public Policy. Eds. J. White, P.Maxim and D. Beavon. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  9. Statistics Canada, 2006. Aboriginal Peoples Survey 2001 – Provincial and Territorial Reports: Off reserve Aboriginal Population. Catalogue no. 89-618-XIE, Ottawa.
  10. Crystal, D. 2000. Language Death. Cambridge University Press.
  11. Tulloch, Shelley. 2005 “Inuit Youth: The Future of Inuktitut” in R. O. van Everdingen (comp.), Proceedings of the 14th Inuit Studies Conference. 11-15 August 2004, p. 285-300. The Arctic Institute of North America, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Available online at
  12. Castellano, B., M. and L. Archibald. 2007. “Healing historic trauma: A report from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.”
    ( In Aboriginal Policy Research: Moving Forward, Making a Difference (Vol. 4) Eds. J.P. White, S. Wingert, D. Beavon and P. Maxim. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

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Mary Jane Norris is a senior research manager with the Research and Analysis Directorate, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

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