Insights on Canadian Society
Results from the 2016 Census: Aboriginal languages and the role of second-language acquisition

by Thomas Anderson

Release date: December 7, 2018

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Today, Insights on Canadian Society is releasing a study based on 2016 Census data. This study uses census data on Aboriginal languages.

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Overview of the study

Using data from the 2016 Census, this study examines the extent to which Aboriginal languages are spoken in Canada, and whether the number of Aboriginal-language speakers rose in past decades. The study also examines the factors that are related to Aboriginal language use and retention.

  • In 2016, 263,840 Canadians reported that they could speak an Aboriginal language. From 1996 to 2016, the total number of people who could speak an Aboriginal language well enough to conduct a conversation rose by 8%.
  • First Nations people accounted for 79% of all Aboriginal-language speakers, Inuit for 16%, and Métis for 4%. By comparison, the proportions of the entire population with an Aboriginal identity were First Nations at 58%, Métis at 35% and Inuit at 4%.
  • Second-language acquisition plays an important role in the transmission of Aboriginal languages. The proportion of Aboriginal-language speakers who acquired it as a second language increased from 18% in 1996 to 26% in 2016.
  • Among those whose mother tongue was an Aboriginal language, 90% spoke it at least on a regular basis at home. Among those who spoke an Aboriginal language as a second language, 73% spoke it at home. Both figures increased between 2006 and 2016.
  • The extent to which Aboriginal languages are spoken depends on a number of personal, family and geographical factors. For instance, families where at least one parent had an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue were more likely to have children who could speak an Aboriginal language.

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Introduction

Much of Canadian society has been constructed on the capacity to speak either English or French in public life.Note In 2016, over 99% of those who were employed in the previous year reported that they used English or French at least on a regular basis in the workplace. This reality may present some challenges for many Aboriginal-language speakers to participate in the larger culture, academia or the labour force.

According to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, centuries of colonial history have had a profoundly negative impact on the use and transmission of Aboriginal languages in Canada.Note The abuses of the residential and federal industrial school system have been well-documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, including their negative effects on the transmission of Aboriginal languages.Note Assimilationist policies that have weakened Aboriginal-language use in the past have had an impact on the promotion of Aboriginal languages.Note Note

Literature surrounding the long-term survival of Aboriginal languages has noted the particular challenges that arise when language speakers of two or more groups come into sustained contact with one another.Note In rare cases, this contact can facilitate the creation of an entirely new language—such as the creation of Michif from Cree and French.Note In others, the smaller language can be pushed out, even to the point of extinction.Note

And yet, despite the obstacles of history and the pressures of the contemporary world, Aboriginal languages have endured.

Over the past two decades, the share of the Aboriginal populationNote with the ability to speak an Aboriginal language has declined. In 1996, 29% of Aboriginal people were able to speak an Aboriginal language well enough to conduct a conversation. In 2006, just over 22% of the Aboriginal population could speak an Aboriginal language. By 2016, this figure had dropped to 16%.

Simply viewing the decreasing share of speakers within the Aboriginal population may overstate the total decline. As past research has demonstrated, the Aboriginal population is growing rapidly, in large part due to an increased likelihood of self-identification.Note This change means that many people who previously did not identify with the Aboriginal population now do. Much of this growth has occurred in large cities where Aboriginal languages are less commonly spoken.

Examining the number of people who can speak an Aboriginal language, rather than the share of speakers, presents these details from a different vantage point. For example, in the 2016 Census, 263,840 people could speak an Aboriginal language well enough to conduct a conversation. Over a 20-year period, from 1996 to 2016, the total number of people who were able to speak an Aboriginal language went up by 8%.

In recent years, learning a second-languageNote has often been cited as contributing to the number of people who can speak an Aboriginal language.Note Efforts and calls to support Aboriginal languages have become increasingly common.Note Note Nevertheless, the question remains: can learning these as second languages revitalize languages that have declined?

This paper examines two different groups of Aboriginal-language speakersNote —those who acquired their language as their mother tongue and those who learned it as a second language—and examines the increase in second-language learners. It also considers how the increase in second-language acquisition among Aboriginal-language speakers could impact the future and vitality of Aboriginal languages in Canada.

Second-language acquisition on the rise

The 2016 Census of Population provided data on close to 70 Aboriginal languages, which can be divided into 12 distinct language families.Note Almost all Aboriginal-language speakersNote were part of the Aboriginal identityNote population (99%). First Nations people made up 79% of all Aboriginal-language speakers, followed by Inuit at 16%, and Métis at 4%.Note The proportions of the entire population with an Aboriginal identity (1,673,785 people) were First Nations at 58%, Métis at 35% and Inuit at 4%.

A mother tongue is defined as the first language learned in childhood that a person still understands. Of the three Aboriginal groups, Inuit Aboriginal-language speakers were the most likely to have acquired that language as their mother tongue. Of the more than 41,000 Inuit who could speak an Aboriginal language, 88% acquired it as their mother tongue. First Nations Aboriginal-language speakers were the next most likely to have acquired that language as their mother tongue at 73%, followed by Métis at 58%.

As was stated earlier, the total number of people who could speak an Aboriginal language well enough to conduct a conversation rose by 8% from 1996 to 2016. However, the number of people with an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue declined by 1% over the 20-year period from 1996 to 2016. This difference shows that the growth in Aboriginal-language speakers is mostly due to second-language acquisition.

Among those who could speak an Aboriginal language, the share who learned it as a second language increased over the 20-year period from 1996 to 2016 (Chart 1). In 2016, one-quarter of all Aboriginal-language speakers learned it as a second language.Note

Chart 1

Data table for Chart 1 
Data table for Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1. The information is grouped by Year (appearing as row headers), Proportion of Aboriginal-language speakers who acquired an Aboriginal language as a second language, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Year Proportion of Aboriginal-language speakers who acquired an Aboriginal language as a second language
percent
1996 18.1
2001 20.2
2006 19.5
2011 22.1
2016 25.7

This change reflects both the increase in the Aboriginal second-language population and the decrease in the Aboriginal language mother-tongue population: the net increase from 1996 to 2016 in the total number of people who could speak an Aboriginal language was due to an increase in the number of second-language learners.

Those who acquired an Aboriginal language as a second language are younger than those who acquired it as their mother tongue

Among those who reported an Aboriginal identity, a similar proportion of women (16%) and men (15%) were able to speak an Aboriginal language. Among them, 25% of both Aboriginal women and men learned it as a second language.

There were significant differences in the age distribution between those who learned their language as their mother tongue and those who learned it later in life (Chart 2). The average age of people who had acquired an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue was 37.1 years, compared with 30.8 years for those who had learned it as a second language.

Chart 2

Data table for Chart 2 
Chart 2
Age pyramid for those who learned an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue and those who acquired it as a second language, Aboriginal-language speakers, Canada, 2016
Table summary
This table displays the results of Age pyramid for those who learned an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue and those who acquired it as a second language. The information is grouped by Age (appearing as row headers), Acquired as their mother tongue, men, Acquired as their mother tongue, women, Acquired as a second language, men and Acquired as a second language, women, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Age Acquired as their mother tongue, men Acquired as their mother tongue, women Acquired as a second language, men Acquired as a second language, women
percent
0 to 4 7.2 6.6 8.2 7.6
5 to 9 7.8 7.0 11.6 11.7
10 to 14 7.0 6.3 10.3 9.5
15 to 19 7.0 6.2 8.6 7.6
20 to 24 7.0 6.8 7.6 7.2
25 to 29 6.8 6.6 7.3 7.9
30 to 34 6.2 6.4 6.6 7.8
35 to 39 6.0 6.2 6.3 6.9
40 to 44 6.6 6.8 6.2 6.9
45 to 49 7.4 7.6 6.4 6.8
50 to 54 7.6 8.0 6.1 6.2
55 to 59 6.9 7.2 5.1 4.6
60 to 64 5.6 5.9 3.9 3.5
65 to 69 4.4 4.7 0.3 2.5
70 to 74 3.0 3.4 1.8 1.6
75 to 79 1.9 2.1 0.9 1.1
80 to 84 1.0 1.3 0.4 0.4
85 to 89 0.4 0.5 0.1 0.3
90 to 94 0.1 0.2 0.0 0.1
95 to 99 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
100 and over 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0

The fact that the age of those who learned an Aboriginal language as a second language was so much lower than those who learned it as their mother tongue suggests a number of things. First, it could reflect the language dynamics at home of many First Nations, Métis and Inuit children: despite not learning their Aboriginal language first, these children still learn it from parents or grandparents who are living with them. Another factor is that many children learned their Aboriginal language at school, in daycare or during other early childhood programs.Note This would suggest that programs that encourage Aboriginal languages in these settings are having a positive effect.

Those in the second-language group less likely to speak it at home than those in the mother-tongue group

The practice of speaking one’s language at home has often been considered in linguistic research.Note Home language use measures one aspect of language vitality: the degree to which a population uses its language in everyday life, indicating the health of a language in a way that simply considering the number of people who speak it does not.

The majority of second-language learners spoke their Aboriginal language at home, either as the language they used most often or on a regular basis (Table 1). Of this group, 73% spoke an Aboriginal language at least regularly at home. The prevalence was, however, higher, at 90%, for those who acquired an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue.


Table 1
Aboriginal language spoken at home by type of acquisition, Aboriginal-language speakers, Canada, 2016
Table summary
This table displays the results of Aboriginal language spoken at home by type of acquisition Able to speak an Aboriginal language, Acquired Aboriginal language as their mother tongue and Acquired Aboriginal language as a second language, calculated using number and percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Able to speak an Aboriginal language Acquired Aboriginal language as their mother tongue Acquired Aboriginal language as a second language
number percent number percent number percent
Total 263,840 100.0 195,660 100.0 68,180 100.0
Aboriginal language spoken at least regularly at home 224,990 85.3 175,445 89.7 49,545 72.7
Aboriginal language spoken most often at home 135,945 51.5 123,885 63.3 12,060 17.7
Aboriginal language spoken regularly (secondary use) at homeTable 1 Note 1 89,055 33.8 51,565 26.4 37,490 55.0

The difference was even greater for those who spoke an Aboriginal language most often at home. Of those who learned an Aboriginal language as a second language, 18% spoke it most often at home compared with 63% of those who had learned it as their mother tongue.

Yet, while those in the second-language acquisition group were less likely to speak their Aboriginal language at home, Aboriginal language use at home increased for both those who acquired their language as their mother tongue and those who acquired it as a second language (Chart 3).

Chart 3

Data table for Chart 3 
Data table for Chart 3
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 3. The information is grouped by Aboriginal language (appearing as row headers), Spoken most often at home and Spoken regularly at home, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Aboriginal language Spoken most often at home Spoken regularly at home
percent
Acquired as their mother tongue
2006 63.8 18.0
2011 60.1 26.0
2016 63.7 26.2
Acquired as a second language
2006 11.6 26.6
2011 10.1 39.4
2016 17.6 54.9

In 2006, the share of those who spoke their Aboriginal language at home at least regularly was 38%. By 2016, 73% of those in the second-language group spoke their Aboriginal language at home. Among those in the Aboriginal language mother-tongue group, 8 in 10 spoke their Aboriginal language at home at least regularly in 2006. This figure was almost 9 in 10 in 2016.Note

Within the Aboriginal language mother-tongue group, the increase was driven by those who reported speaking their language regularly at home, but not most often, and was largely found for five Aboriginal languages: Cree languages,Note Ojibway, Oji-Cree, Dene and Inuktitut made up just under 80% of the difference in those who spoke their Aboriginal language regularly at home from 2006 to 2016.Note

Within the second-language group, there was an increase in both in the number who spoke their language most often at home and those who spoke it regularly. Less than 70% of the difference in those who spoke their language most often at home and close to 70% of the difference in those who spoke it regularly at home comprised Blackfoot, Cree languages, Ojibway, Salish languages and Inuktitut.

Transmission of Aboriginal languages greater within families where at least one parent has an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue

It is also important to assess the extent to which Aboriginal languages are transmitted from parent to child.

Among census familiesNote living in private households with at least one parent and at least one child,Note there were 47,705 families where at least one parent could speak an Aboriginal language. Within this group, it was more common for children to speak an Aboriginal language if the parent(s) learned their language as their mother tongue than if they learned it as a second language.

Among families where at least one parent had an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue, 66% were home to a child who could speak an Aboriginal language (Table 2). This suggests that the language was successfully transmitted from parent to child.Note Among families where no parent had an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue but at least one parent had an Aboriginal language as a second language, 49% had a child who could speak an Aboriginal language.


Table 2
Type of parental Aboriginal-language acquisition by children with knowledge of an Aboriginal language, census families in private households with at least one parent and at least one child aged 0 to 17, Canada, 2016
Table summary
This table displays the results of Type of parental Aboriginal-language acquisition by children with knowledge of an Aboriginal language Aboriginal-language acquisition, Total, At least one child could speak an Aboriginal language and No child could speak an Aboriginal language, calculated using number and percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Aboriginal-language acquisition
Total At least one child could speak an Aboriginal language No child could speak an Aboriginal language
number percent number percent number percent
Total 3,862,870 100.0 31,135 0.8 3,831,740 99.2
At least one parent acquired an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue 35,550 100.0 23,515 66.1 12,035 33.9
No parent has an Aboriginal mother tongue, but at least one parent learned an Aboriginal language as a second language 12,155 100.0 5,900 48.5 6,255 51.5
No parent in the census family could speak an Aboriginal language 3,815,165 100.0 1,715 0.0 3,813,445 100.0

Within opposite-sex couple families,Note those where both the mother and father had an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue were the most likely (78%) to be home to a child who could speak an Aboriginal language. In families where one parent had an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue and the other spoke an Aboriginal language as a second language, 68% had a child in the home who could speak an Aboriginal language. This rate was higher in families where it was the mother who had the Aboriginal language as her mother tongue (72%) than in families where the father had the Aboriginal language as his mother tongue (65%). This falls in line with past research that has cited women as having a profound impact on the health of Aboriginal languages.Note

The majority (65%) of families where both the mother and father spoke an Aboriginal language as a second language had at least one child who could also speak it. Families where only one parent could speak an Aboriginal language were significantly less likely to be home to a child who was an Aboriginal-language speaker (19%); this discrepancy held true regardless of whether or not the speaking parent learned their language as their mother tongue (18%) or as a second language (20%). This suggests that the transmission of Aboriginal languages is influenced more by each parent’s ability to speak an Aboriginal language than by their type of acquisition.

Within lone-parent families, 70% of those where the parent had learned their Aboriginal language as their mother tongue were home to a child who could speak the language, which was higher than the 56% for those where the parent had learned it as a second language; the rates were roughly the same for male and female lone-parent families.

Inverse relationship between language continuity and the rate of second-language acquisition

The mother tongue continuity rate, in this paper, refers to the share of people with an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue who speak that language at home at least on a regular basis. The continuity rate can be seen as a measure of language retention among those who have an Aboriginal language as a mother tongue. The rate of second-language acquisition, on the other hand, refers to the share of speakers who learned their Aboriginal language as a second language.

Contrasting these two indicators for various Aboriginal languages reveals that an inverse relationship exists between language continuity and the rate of second-language acquisition (Chart 4). Languages with high levels of continuity, such as Atikamekw (96%), Inuktitut (97%) and Dene (91%), tend to have significantly lower rates of second-language acquisition (6%, 12% and 14%, respectively).

Chart 4

Data table for Chart 4 
Chart 4
Rate of second-language acquisition by mother tongue continuity rate, Aboriginal languages, Canada, 2016
Table summary
This table displays the results of Rate of second-language acquisition by mother tongue continuity rate. The information is grouped by Language (appearing as row headers), Language family, Mother tongue continuity rate and Second-language acquisition rate (appearing as column headers).
Language Language family Mother tongue continuity rate Second-language acquisition rate
Atikamekw Algonquian 96.3 5.9
Naskapi Algonquian 97.2 6.5
Montagnais (Innu) Algonquian 94.9 8.7
Inuktitut Inuit languages 97.0 12.0
Dene Athabaskan languages 90.6 14.1
Oji-Cree Algonquian 86.7 14.7
Stoney Siouan languages 84.6 18.1
Cree, n.o.s. Algonquian 84.3 24.5
Woods Cree Algonquian 78.7 25.0
Ottawa (Odawa) Algonquian 81.8 26.8
North Slavey (Hare) Athabaskan languages 73.0 27.4
Mi'kmaq Algonquian 81.1 28.5
Dogrib (Tlicho) Athabaskan languages 85.9 29.5
South Slavey Athabaskan languages 79.4 30.4
Inuit languages, n.i.e. Inuit languages 47.4 31.2
Slavey, n.o.s. Athabaskan languages 63.6 32.6
Haisla Wakashan languages 57.7 34.3
Northern Tutchone Athabaskan languages 23.2 35.1
Dakota Siouan languages 58.1 35.3
Chilcotin Athabaskan languages 72.7 35.7
Swampy Cree Algonquian 64.6 35.7
Heiltsuk Wakashan languages 43.5 36.0
Gitxsan (Gitksan) Tsimshian languages 62.8 36.0
Thompson (Ntlakapamux) Salish languages 41.0 36.7
Northern East Cree Algonquian 78.5 36.7
Ojibway Algonquian 71.1 37.1
Algonquin Algonquian 66.3 40.5
Moose Cree Algonquian 57.1 41.0
Beaver Athabaskan languages 63.6 42.6
Plains Cree Algonquian 70.8 44.7
Blackfoot Algonquian 82.3 45.1
Tsimshian Tsimshian languages 62.0 45.1
Babine (Wetsuwet'en) Athabaskan languages 66.7 45.2
Inuvialuktun Inuit languages 43.5 46.2
Carrier Athabaskan languages 57.1 46.2
Athabaskan languages, n.i.e. Athabaskan languages 41.7 47.1
Gwich'in Athabaskan languages 44.4 48.6
Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) Wakashan languages 46.1 50.4
Kwakiutl (Kwak'wala) Wakashan languages 34.4 52.9
Kaska (Nahani) Athabaskan languages 62.2 53.4
Michif Isolates/other 41.7 53.5
Inuinnaqtun Inuit languages 72.2 54.3
Malecite Algonquian 62.0 57.6
Mohawk Iroquoian languages 55.7 58.6
Kutenai Isolates/other 55.0 58.8
Sekani Athabaskan languages 45.5 59.5
Wakashan languages, n.i.e. Wakashan languages 0.0 60.0
Comox Salish languages 40.0 51.1
Lillooet Salish languages 47.2 62.0
Southern Tutchone Athabaskan languages 37.5 62.1
Nisga'a Tsimshian languages 53.8 62.1
Aboriginal languages, n.o.s. Isolates/other 41.5 62.7
Okanagan Salish languages 47.8 64.4
Shuswap (Secwepemctsin) Salish languages 50.9 65.5
Halkomelem Salish languages 31.8 66.5
Tahltan Athabaskan languages 36.4 68.5
Salish languages, n.i.e. Salish languages 30.8 69.0
Tlingit Isolates/other 27.3 73.1
Haida Isolates/other 45.2 74.2
Southern East Cree Algonquian 66.7 75.0
Oneida Iroquoian languages 80.0 75.0
Siouan languages, n.i.e. Siouan languages 40.0 78.6
Algonquian languages, n.i.e. Algonquian 0.0 79.2
Cayuga Iroquoian languages 33.3 80.0
Straits Salish languages 40.0 80.8
Sarsi (Sarcee) Athabaskan languages 18.2 83.3
Squamish Salish languages 40.0 87.5
Iroquoian languages, n.i.e. Iroquoian languages 40.0 91.3

Conversely, Aboriginal languages with lower levels of continuity—for example, Sarsi (18%) and Tlingit (27%)—tend to have higher rates of second-language acquisition (83% and 73%, respectively).

Aboriginal languages more likely to be learned as a mother tongue in smaller, linguistically concentrated communities

Previous research has found that people with an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue were more likely to speak it at home if they lived in an area with a high concentration of other Aboriginal language mother-tongue speakers.Note

Aboriginal languages with a large proportion of people who learned it as their mother tongue are often found in small, sometimes rural areas with a high geographic concentration of speakers. For example, in 2016, Atikamekw was spoken by 6,640 people in Canada, 6% of whom learned it as a second language—meaning that the majority of them learned it as their mother tongue. About 78% of all Atikamekw speakers lived on-reserve in three census subdivisions (CSDs)Note in north-central Quebec. Within these communities, 98% of the population could speak Atikamekw well enough to conduct a conversation.

Similarly, Naskapi was spoken by 1,465 people in 2016; 94% of them learned it as their mother tongue, while the rest learned it as a second language. Of the Naskapi-speaking population, 83% lived on-reserve in two CSDs in 2016—one in Eastern Quebec and the other in Labrador. Within these combined communities, Naskapi was spoken by 79% of the population.

Inuktitut is, perhaps, the most prominent example of this relationship between small communities with high Aboriginal-language concentration and the bulk of speakers learning the language as their mother tongue. The majority of those who could speak Inuktitut learned it as their mother tongue; 12% learned it as a second language.

In 2016, the majority (94%) of the Inuktitut-speaking population lived in either Nunavut or Nunavik. The population in these regions lives in a number of small communities that are accessible by air or water only. The largest municipality—Iqaluit—had a population of 7,590 people in 2016. Within Nunavut and Nunavik combined, 78% of the population could speak Inuktitut.

On the other hand, many languages with a greater share of second-language learners were less likely to be found in places with high concentrations of speakers. For example, 83% of those who could speak Sarsi (Sarcee) learned it as a second language; while 60% of all Sarsi speakers lived in the Calgary census subdivision, they made up only a small fraction of the 1.2 million people who lived there.

Squamish and Straits are two languages within the Salish language family, spoken predominately in British Columbia. Each of these languages had a population base that was mainly comprised of second-language learners.

Of the population who could speak Squamish, 68% lived on-reserve in two small communities under the administration of the Squamish Nation. However, these CSDs are located within the Greater Vancouver area; in these CSDs, the share of the population who could speak Squamish was less than 6%.

Of those who could speak Straits, 71% lived on-reserve in one of two CSDs.Note Similar to Squamish, these CSDs are located within a large metropolitan area—in Victoria, British Columbia. This area is predominately English-speaking: 99% of the population could speak English and 73% of the population could only speak English. In 2016, 0.2% of the population in Victoria could speak an Aboriginal language. Within the two specific communities, 10% of people could speak Straits.

These examples suggest that it is not only the immediate community that matters for language acquisition, but the surrounding region as well. Aboriginal-language speakers who learned their language as their mother tongue often resided farther away from large metropolitan areas than those who learned it as a second language.

Conclusion

The number of people who have acquired an Aboriginal language as a second language is on the rise, while the number with an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue has fallen. However, regardless of the type of acquisition, for Aboriginal languages in Canada to not only continue to exist but also to thrive, past research suggests that it is necessary that these languages be transmitted to children and be used in everyday life.Note

On this matter, however, there is conflicting evidence. On one hand, the use of Aboriginal languages at home is lower for those who acquired them as a second language. Aboriginal languages with high rates of second-language acquisition also tend to be those with lower levels of mother tongue continuity.

On the other hand, the proportion of those who speak an Aboriginal language at home is increasing. This is true for both people who acquired the language as their mother tongue and those who learned it as a second language.

The factors that are related to Aboriginal language use and retention can be grouped at the personal, family and community levels. First, at the personal level, the age structure of the population who learned an Aboriginal language as a second language is significantly younger than that of those who learned an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue. While the Census of Population does not account for factors such as the perceived importance of speaking an Aboriginal language, future research using other data sources, like the 2017 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, could examine this.

Second, for most people, family is the primary environment in which language is learned and spoken. Families where at least one parent had an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue are more likely to be home to children who can speak an Aboriginal language. Within two-parent families, the likelihood of language transmission for those where both parents could speak an Aboriginal language was significantly greater than in families where only one parent could speak an Aboriginal language. This seems to suggest that what matters most for Aboriginal-language transmission is being surrounded by other Aboriginal-language speakers.

Finally, community—in the sense of both people and place—is central to language maintenance. Language is a communal affair—for a language to live it must be shared. Aboriginal languages with high rates of continuity tend to be found in small, often isolated areas with a high concentration of speakers. Aboriginal languages with a small number of speakers who are widely dispersed, however, face particular challenges, as are those located within English- and French-dominant communities.

Thomas Anderson is an analyst with the Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division at Statistics Canada.

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Data sources, methods and definitions

Data sources

Data in this article are from the 2016 Census of Population, as well as the 1996, 2001 and 2006 Census and the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS). Further information on the census can be found in the Guide to the Census of Population, 2016. Additional information on census data quality and comparability for Aboriginal peoples can be found in the Aboriginal Peoples Reference Guide, Census of Population, 2016.

Methods

Growth rates were conducted using an adjusted base to control for differences in incompletely enumerated reserves from one cycle to another. However, point estimates—unless otherwise specified—were compared without adjusting for incomplete enumeration. For more information on comparing census data from one cycle to another see the Aboriginal Peoples Reference Guide, Census of Population, 2016.

When comparing data on Aboriginal peoples from the 2016 Census of Population to previous cycles, several factors should be taken into account. They include differences in methodology, changes to the wording and format of Aboriginal questions, legislative changes and differences in the list of incompletely enumerated reserves.

Along with these factors, some people, for a variety of reasons, report their Aboriginal identity differently from one data collection period to another. This is particularly true of differences in survey methodology between the 2011 NHS and the 2016 Census. The NHS estimates are derived from a voluntary survey and are therefore subject to potentially higher non-response error than those derived from the 2016 Census long form.

Random rounding and percentage distributions: To ensure the confidentiality of responses collected for the 2016 Census, a random rounding process is used to alter the values reported in individual cells. As a result, when these data are summed or grouped, the total value may not match the sum of the individual values since the total and subtotals are independently rounded. Similarly, percentage distributions, which are calculated on rounded data, may not necessarily add up to 100%.

Because of random rounding, counts and percentages may vary slightly between different census products such as the analytical documents, highlight tables and data tables.

A note on the language variables: Some Indian reserves and settlements did not participate in the 2016 Census as enumeration was either not permitted or it was interrupted before completion. As a result, some estimates in this document may be underestimated, especially for languages spoken by First Nations people. For example, several reserves with a high number of speakers of Iroquoian languages did not participate in the 2016 Census of Population.

Definitions

Aboriginal-language speakers: This refers to those who reported being able to speak an Aboriginal language well enough to conduct a conversation. It is based on the knowledge of an Aboriginal language variable.

Type of acquisition: This variable refers to how Aboriginal-language speakers learned the language they speak, whether as their mother tongue or as a second language.

  • Acquired as a mother tongue: This group is comprised of those who reported an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue (Question 9 of the 2016 Census) and who could still speak that same language well enough to conduct a conversation (Question 16).
  • Acquired as a second language: This group is comprised of those who could speak an Aboriginal language, but who did not report that same language on the question about mother tongue.

Home Language – This variable is made up of two concepts from the Census questionnaire. The first is Language spoken most often at home and the second is other language(s) spoken regularly at home.

  • Language spoken most often at home – This refers to the language the person speaks most often at home at the time of data collection. A person can report more than one language as "spoken most often at home" if the languages are spoken equally often.
  • Other language(s) spoken regularly at home – This refers to the languages, if any, that the person speaks at home on a regular basis at the time of data collection, other than the language or languages he or she speaks most often at home.

Rate of second-language acquisition: This refers to the share of people who learned a given Aboriginal language as a second language, divided by the total number of speakers of that Aboriginal language.

Mother tongue continuity rate: This refers to the share of people with an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue who speak that language at home, at least on a regular basis.

Adjusted base: This variable permits the adjustment of estimates to account for incompletely enumerated Indian reserves and Indian settlements from one census to another. For example, if a reserve or settlement was incompletely enumerated for the 2006 or 2016 Census, it should be excluded from the tabulations for both years when comparisons between the two are made. As a result, the estimates in adjusted tables used for historical comparison may differ from those based on unadjusted data. For more information on incompletely enumerated Indian reserves and Indian settlements, please refer to Appendix 1.2 of the Guide to the Census of Population, 2016.

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