National Indigenous Languages Day a time to celebrate, educate

As Canada marks National Indigenous Languages Day on Thursday, March 31, a Brock expert is encouraging society to learn more about the importance of language preservation.

Stanley Henry, Assistant Professor in Brock’s Faculty of Education, recommends people take time Thursday to celebrate the more than 70 Indigenous languages spoken across the country. He suggests learning more about efforts to preserve Canada’s Indigenous languages, including languages traditionally spoken locally, and the progress Indigenous people are making to reclaim their ancestral languages.

Since 1993, National Indigenous Languages Day has been recognized as a way to honour the importance of Indigenous languages and promote their survival.

Several of Canada’s Indigenous languages, which can be divided into 12 language families, are endangered according to data from the 2016 census. Just more than 15 per cent of the Indigenous population reported being able to hold a conversation in an Indigenous language in 2016. The residential school system, in particular, eroded Indigenous languages by not allowing Indigenous children to speak in their mother tongues.

“The atrocities committed in Indian residential schools had longitudinal impacts across generations,” says Henry. “Survivors refused to teach Indigenous languages to their children or were stripped of their language through extreme forms of corporal punishment in residential schools. Thus, the regeneration of Indigenous languages is innately bound to Indian residential schools.”

The loss of Indigenous languages is an ongoing challenge for communities working to express their culture and connect with their history.

“Indigenous languages convey our understanding and philosophy of the world,” says Henry. “When we lose the ability to speak and understand the words, we alter our connections to self and history and our elders, and also to creation because when you look at our languages, the words are manifestations of our relationship with creation.”

Brock is located in the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples. Haudenosaunee languages include Mohawk and Cayuga, both offered at Brock through the Faculty of Education.

Henry teaches Brock’s Cayuga language courses and organized a virtual café in 2021 to share Cayuga language and culture with the Brock community. The University also offers courses in the Nishnawbe language (also known as Anishinaabemowin or Ojibwe/Ojibwa), spoken by the Anishinaabe.

Cayuga, Mohawk and the Nishnawbe language are all listed as “critically endangered” or “definitely endangered” in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

Resources for those interested in learning more about Indigenous languages include:

This year also marks the start of the United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages, which is intended to promote the preservation and revitalization of Indigenous languages around the world. Estimates suggest at least half of the languages spoken today will be seriously endangered or extinct by 2100, with most of these being Indigenous languages.

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