Indigenous Languages Are Dying Off

Native American dancers from the United States and Canada at the Gathering of Nations. Image via the AP.
Native American dancers from the United States and Canada at the Gathering of Nations. Image via the AP.

Seven months after Justin Trudeau proposed a policy to protect Indigenous languages, linguists worry that action needs to be taken soon or else Canada will lose the last of its Indigenous speakers.


“Some languages in Canada now just have fewer than 10 speakers who grew up with the language,” University of Sudbury professor Mary Anne Corbiere tells CBC News. “Most of those speakers are elderly.”

Corbiere runs a program where students can take courses in Indigenous languages in the hopes that they’ll use them outside of school, whether or not those students have Indigenous heritage.

“I welcome anybody who wants to learn our languages,” she says. Speaking to a person “on their terms” is “the greatest sign of respect you can give anyone.”

Similar stories have already been making the rounds in the US. Over the past few years, the world lost the last speakers of Native American languages Chickasaw, Klallam, and Eyak.

This is more than just a few marginal examples. When I asked Ben Macaulay–a linguist who documents the last speakers of endangered languages–how many languages this affects, he said: “most of them.” Currently there are an estimated 7,000 known living languages in the world, yet 95% of the population uses 300 of them.

“Part of the problem is that most languages don’t have a writing system, so when these people get cell phones, they just use their dominant language,” he tells Jezebel.


CBC News has previously noted that Trudeau’s plan would “need teeth,” as previous measures, like making government services available in Indigenous languages, have not stemmed the tide.

Staff reporter, Gizmodo. wkimball @ gizmodo


I’d just like to note - because this story is important and some commenters seem confused - that it’s beyond appalling to compare white communities losing their accents because of globalization to the lingering effects of systematic cultural genocide that has marginalized and disempowered native communities for generations. It is not the same thing.

The top thread on this post is upsetting.