Languages Dying Out
"Aboriginal" Languages Gradually Vanishing
"In everyday use it's already dead -- almost," said Kevin Littlelight, a council member of the Tsuu T'ina Nation, just southwest of Calgary, referring to the aboriginal language known by the same name, Tsuu T'ina. "A few people use it with their parents, the older people, but when those people are gone, it will vanish."
At least half of the world's 6,800 languages, and perhaps as many as 90 per cent, face a similar fate, according to the Worldwatch Institute.
It reports that half of all languages are spoken by fewer than 2,500 people each.
In Canada, only three of 50 aboriginal languages -- Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway -- have large enough populations to be considered safe. And only about one in every four of the 800,000 people who claimed an aboriginal identity in 1996 had an aboriginal language as their mother tongue, according to Statistics Canada. Even fewer spoke it at home.
Around the world, war, natural disasters, the spread of more dominant languages such as Chinese, Russian and English, and government bans on language have contributed to the death of mother tongues.
"In some ways, it's similar to what threatens species," said Payal Sampat, a Worldwatch researcher who wrote about the topic for the institute's May-June magazine.
Tsuu T'ina means "a great number of people," but the reserve (also known as Sarcee) has just 1,250 residents. Of those, 40 speak the language, which has three dialects.
Mr. Littlelight said the loss of his people's language has devastating implications. It endangers "our ability to think as Sarcee people," he said. "So then when we all become English-speaking natives, we sort of belong to the Pan-American group -- it's just a generalization of an Indian. It's like lumping all the fishes as a fish, rather than as salmon, trout, all the pike. We lose that individuality."
The reserve holds language classes and workshops, and is putting together a topical dictionary full of everyday Tsuu T'ina terms. But Mr. Littlelight, who speaks the language "at the kindergarten level," is not optimistic.
The language's future has already been undermined by the residential schools that "indoctrinated" his people in the use of English (many barred the use of native languages), the proximity to English-speaking Calgary and an internal struggle among the Tsuu T'ina over which dialect should be taught.
"It starts at the top with leadership," he said.
New Zealand's Maoris have been a model for indigenous peoples in preserving their mother tongue. For instance, they have set up "language nests" -- children's centres with elders who speak their first language to those whose parents may have lost the language, said Arok Wolvengray, a professor of Indian languages and linguistics at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College.
In Canada, some native groups, such as the Crees who live near James Bay in Quebec, are offering immersion training for children. At the Six Nations Reserve in southern Ontario, about 500 children are enrolled in bilingual schools teaching English-Cayuga or English-Mohawk.
"Each language has its own way of seeing the world, of dealing with the world," Prof. Wolvengray said. "When you lose a language, you lose that knowledge base and that world view, and that impoverishes us a little bit."
He relates a story from the 1950s, told to him by his wife, a Cree, about a white boy who learned some Cree from his peers in a residential school. In sympathy with his friends, who were not allowed to speak their language, he spoke up in class in Cree -- only to be punished.
Eight countries account for more than half of all languages: Papua New Guinea, 832 languages; Indonesia, 731; Nigeria, 515; India, 400; Mexico, Cameroon and Australia, just under 300 each; and Brazil, 234.
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