Ups and Downs in Canada’s Languages: Census 2021

By: Nico Mjones, MA Applied Linguistics / Diploma in Curatorial Studies / CLM Intern

Statistics Canada recently released the data on language that it collected in the 2021 census. This data is full of new and interesting developments in language diversity in Canada. The release of the language data brings new information about official languages in Canada, Indigenous languages, and other non-official languages.

(Image Source: Statistics Canada, Census of Population, 2021)

Canada’s Official Languages & Bilingualism

There have been some changes in the statistics concerning our official languages, but they mostly follow the same trends as in previous years. Proportionally French has declined across Canada due to its significantly smaller speaker population growth. Bilingualism has increased and is particularly common among native French speakers. In the 2021 census, 6,581,680 Canadians spoke both English and French (Table 1). By comparing the data in Table 1 and Table 2, we can see that a much higher proportion of francophones are bilingual than anglophones. If there are almost 8 million people whose first official language is French (Table 2) but only about 4 million who speak French only (Table 1), this suggests that almost half of Canada’s francophones know English as well.  On the other hand, there are almost 28 million Canadians whose first official language is English, and about 25 million who know English only, then under 10% of anglophones report knowing French.

Additionally, in Quebec the number of people whose first official language was English was higher than one million for the first time. The number of people reporting French as their first official language declined in Ontario, home to the largest Francophone population outside of Quebec, and also declined in New Brunswick, the only officially bilingual province. Across many of the census’ statistics the French language has declined in proportion or in number of speakers. French has declined proportionally even where the numbers of speakers grew, as in the national mother tongue data (Table 3) and official language spoken at home (Table 4). This is likely due to immigration and to the increase in speakers of non-official languages.

Table 1. Knowledge of Official Languages

LanguageKnowledge of Official Languages 2021Knowledge of Official Languages 2016Change 2016-2021
English only25,261,655 (69%)23,757,525 (68.3%)+1,504,130
French only4,087,895 (11.2%)4,144,685 (11.9%)-56,790
English & French6,581,680 (18%)6,216,065 (17.9%)+365,615

Table 2. First Official Language Spoken

LanguageFirst Official Language 2021First Official Language 2016Change 2016-2021
English27,643,140 (75.5%)26,007,500 (74.8%)+1,635,640
French7,828,545 (21.4%)7,705,755 (22.2%)+122,790
English & French476,175 (1.3%)417,485 (1.2%)+58,690

Table 3. Mother Tongue Official Language

LanguageMother Tongue 2021Mother Tongue 2016Change 2016-2021
English only20,107,200 (54.9%)19,460,850 (56%)+646,350
French only7,189,245 (19.6%)7,166,705 (20.6%)+22,540
English & French291,325 (0.8%)165,320 (0.5%)+126,005

Table 4. Official Language Spoken Most Often at Home

LanguageLanguage spoken most often at home 2021Language spoken at home 2016Change
English23,376,200 (63.8%)22,162,865 (63.7%)+1,213,335
French7,044,855 (19.2%)6,943,800 (20%)+101,055
English & French230,955 (0.6%)160,185 (0.5%)+70,770

Canada’s Indigenous Languages and Data Collection Challenges

Not all the information in the census is fully reliable. Sociolinguists will often caution that self-reported data isn’t always accurate, because people may have different names for languages or different ideas of what knowing a language is. However, this particular census has a different data collection issue, particularly with Indigenous languages. The census reports a slight decline in Indigenous language speakers and many news outlets have made note of this, but Statistics Canada has put out a warning about their data on Indigenous languages. The 2021 census was conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic, and during the pandemic many indigenous communities were hard to reach. Many reserves locked down much more significantly than non-reserve communities, and some did not allow entry to anyone who was not a resident of the reserve. Statistics Canada also stated that there was some unwillingness to participate among Indigenous communities due to the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools. For these, and other reasons, Statistics Canada cautions against making direct comparisons between 2021 and previous censuses for the speaker statistics of indigenous languages. However, this doesn’t mean the data collected doesn’t have some useful information.

One indigenous language less likely to be as impacted by these data collection problems is Michif. Michif is the language of the Metis, who live in southern Canada but do not live on reserves. Because they are not in the far north and do not live on reservations, it is less likely that the Covid-19 pandemic impacted their enumeration. The data seem to support this: while most Indigenous languages recorded fewer speakers in the 2021 census, Michif had an increase. In 2016, there were 465 mother tongue speakers of Michif and 1,210 speakers in total. In the 2021 census, there were 485 mother tongue speakers and 1,905 speakers in total, an increase of 20 mother tongue speakers and almost 700 speakers in total. Given the small number of people who speak Michif, the increase of 700 speakers is huge, and an extremely positive sign for the language.

Statistics Canada created a list of which reserves refused or were unable to fully take part in enumeration. These were located across Canada, in 6 of the country’s 10 provinces. Based on the information that was collected, Statistics Canada estimated that there may still have been a small decline in the number of speakers of indigenous languages. Statistics Canada also announced that they would release additional information and analysis of Indigenous languages in September.

Canada’s Largest Non-Official Languages

Data from the census not only shows that the number of mother tongue speakers of non-official languages has hit a new record of 7,848,820, but that there have been significant changes in the languages spoken in Canada. One of the most noteworthy of these is the large growth in Punjabi speakers, an increase of 164,905. This makes Punjabi the 2nd largest mother tongue with 666,585 speakers. In the 2016 census, Punjabi was the 3rd largest non-official language by mother tongue, but it has now surpassed Cantonese. Mandarin remained the largest with an increase of 87,215 speakers to a total of 679,255. Spanish and Arabic, the 4th and 5th largest non-official languages, had similar large increases in speakers, of around 80,000 and 89,000 respectively. Out of the top five, only Cantonese had a decrease in mother tongue speakers. These large changes are mostly due to immigration. Most immigrants from China today speak Mandarin rather than Cantonese, and thus the number of Mandarin speakers has been growing as immigration from China continues. In the 2016 census, Mandarin showed an increase of 343,335 mother tongue speakers. While Statistics Canada won’t release data on immigration, nationality, and ethnicity until October of this year, it is known that in addition to immigration from China, immigration from India, Latin America, and Arabic speaking countries has been on the rise, and the linguistic data reflect this.

Table 5. Languages in Canada by Mother Tongue

Language20212016Change
Mandarin679,255592,040 (1)+87,215
Punjabi666,585501,680 (3)+164,905
Cantonese553,380565,270 (2)-11,890
Spanish538,870458,850 (4)+80,020
Arabic508,410419,890 (5)+88,520
Tagalog461,150431,380 (6)+29,770
Italian319,505375,635 (8)-56,130
German272,865384,035 (7)-111,170*
Portugese240,680221,540 (9)+19,140
Urdu235,290210,815 (10)+24,475
Russian197,905188,255 (12)+9,650
Iranian Persian/Farsi179,425214,200 (11)-34,775*
Vietnamese173,000156,425 (14)+16,575
Korean170,400153,425 (15)+16,975
Polish160,170181,710 (13)-21,540
* Data presented for German and Iranian/Persian is misleading due to new divisions of German and Iranian/Persian. See text for analysis.

While Cantonese remains one of the largest non-official languages in Canada, it is likely that it will continue to fall lower in the ranking of languages by size. This is similar to the situation of other languages in Canada that are transitioning from large mother tongues of recent immigrants into heritage languages of subsequent generations. Italian and Polish are historically large languages in Canada that both show large declines in mother tongue speakers in this census, declines of about 56,000 and 22,000 respectively.

German is a peculiar case of this decline: at first glance the data shows that German had the largest mother tongue decrease in Canada, with 111,170 fewer speakers. However, this is misleading because the way that German and several other languages are recorded was changed between 2016 and 2021. A number of languages, such as Plautdietsch, Pennsylvania German, Swiss German, and Low Saxon were added to the census in 2021, and these all would likely have been included under German in the 2016 census. If we combine the results for German with all of these varieties that are now listed separately, the decline is more likely to be 51,385 fewer speakers. While this is still a large number, and only second among the large languages in mother tongue decline after Italian, it is less than half the reported decline.

A similar problem with the data can be seen with the Iranian languages. Iranian Persian, or Farsi also shows a decline in speakers despite increases in previous censuses. The 2016 census recorded “Persian (Fasi)” as having 214,200 mother tongue speakers. The 2021 census shows “Iranian Persian” as having 179,425 mother tongue speakers and “Persian (Farsi), none other specified” 25,975. The census now also includes Dari, which is the official name for the Persian language as spoken in Afghanistan. Farsi and Dari are mutually intelligible (speakers of either can mostly or entirely understand the other) and have similar standards for writing, but some differences in pronunciation. Dari in 2021 is listed as having 57,220 mother tongue speakers. This suggests that Persian did not actually have a decline, but that changes to the census have divided the way the Persian language is recorded.

The census is an important tool for understanding language in Canada. There are ways in which the census can struggle to capture the necessary data for this, such as it has in 2021 with Indigenous languages. When the census does capture data, it sometimes requires additional analysis to understand what it means. This is especially true of changes to the census categories, as in the case of German and Persian. In spite of these difficulties, the 2021 census is still illuminating the state of language in Canada. The census has shown how varied the trajectory of different languages in Canada has been, how well efforts to support French and Indigenous languages have fared, and how much linguistic diversity has grown in Canada.

For language data from the 2021 census, visit: www.statcan.gc.ca/en/subjects-start/languages

Speaking of Pride: The LGBT community and Linguistics

By: Nico Mjones, Student in Applied Linguistics MA and Certificate in Curatorial Studies / CLM Intern

June is Pride Month in Canada. As both a student of Applied Linguistics and a member of the LGBT community, I find it important to talk about the ways in which language matters for LGBT people. In this blog I will discuss some of the ways in which language and LGBT topics intertwine. The way LGBT topics and identities are talked about, the terms used to refer to LGBT people, and even grammatical issues such as pronouns and grammatical gender are some of the ways LGBT people and language intersect. Due to Canada’s diverse linguistic make up, these matters can vary by language as well, including in official languages, non-official languages, and indigenous languages.

Terminology

Terminology is very important to LGBT people. The words used to refer to different LGBT identities and to the community collectively have evolved significantly over the last century. The term LGBT, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender” is the most common collective term, but LGBTQ+, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Plus” is often used in an attempt to be more inclusive. LGBT terminology in Canada is similar to that in the rest of the Anglosphere and Francophonie. A term that is more common in Canada than in other countries is the term “Two-Spirit”. Two-Spirit is a collective term for the many different pre-colonial gender and sexuality concepts in Indigenous cultures in Canada. Not all of the indigenous groups in Canada have traditional identities that fall within the Two-Spirit moniker, and not all Indigenous people identify with the term in preference to other LGBT terms. Many LGBT organizations across Canada have begun to include Two-Spirit so as to be more inclusive of Indigenous LGBT people. An example of this is the longer acronym LGBTQ2S+, adding “2S” to represent Two-Spirit in the acronym.

Fig. 1 A modified version of the Progress Flag. The Progress Flag adds black and brown stripes, representing people of color in the LGBT community, as well the colors of the Trans flag to a Chevron on the left of the Pride Flag. The purple added to the chevron in this flag created by Brock University specifically represents the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe members of the LGBT community in the Niagara Region.

In English, there is debate over the term “queer”. Once universally considered a slur against LGBT people, today many consider the word “reclaimed” and many LGBT people use it self-referentially and to refer to the LGBT community. Some prefer the term ‘queer’ as more succinct, radical, or inclusive than LGBT. Others consider the term to be too offensive and harmful to be used.

Pronouns and Grammatical Gender

Gender in language is an especially important subject for transgender and non-binary people in the LGBT community. Grammatical gender is a system for dividing nouns into different classes and varies between languages, For example, French divides all nouns into two classes of masculine and feminine, while Algonquian languages divide all nouns into two classes of animate and inanimate. Generally, a noun’s class affects other words in the same sentence, through agreement on verbs, adjectives and pronouns. The LGBT community is particularly focused on neutrality in pronouns. Most trans people have preferences for their pronouns, and these can be different from what are assumed, Non-binary people may prefer neutral pronouns.

For English in Canada, gender neutrality is relatively easy. English does not have grammatical gender outside of gendered pronouns. Many gendered terms, such as actress or waitress, have declined in use and terms like actor and waiter have become gender neutral. There has been some debate over a neutral pronoun. Most commonly used is the singular case of “they”. Some view this as grammatically incorrect, but the usage of singular they has been documented in English since at least the writings of Shakespeare. Singular they has become very commonly used amongst non-binary people in the LGBT community, andsees some acceptance by style guides and other prescriptive sources. There have also been examples of inventive neutral pronouns, such as “xe”. These are attempts to create a new pronoun that is gender neutral, and these have seen some usage but relatively little acceptance in linguistic prescriptive guides. 

Gender neutrality in French in Canada is considerably more difficult because of its system of grammatical gender. This makes it difficult for non-binary people who may wish to have gender neutral language used for them. For pronouns, “iel” is the most commonly discussed gender neutral pronoun in French. There are many people who are actively working to develop a system of gender neutrality in French. In Canada, one significant academic is Florence Ashley, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. Florence Ashley, who themself uses gender neutral pronouns, specializes in research of transgender rights and welfare in Canada, and has also written in French about developing a system of gender neutrality in the French language.

Indigenous & Immigrant Languages

Pronouns and grammatical gender in Canada’s non-official languages vary considerably. Many indigenous languages in Canada have a single gender neutral pronoun, such as the Cree 3rd person pronoun “wiya” which is not differentiated by gender. Many indigenous languages have a system that is not defined by masculine and feminine, but instead by animacy and inanimacy. This system is found in the Algonquian, Iroquian, and Siouan language families, which include the Cree, Anishnaabe, Mohawk, and Nakoda languages, among others. Because the grammatical gender in these languages is based on animacy rather than on masculine and feminine, they have no impact on the gendering of language for LGBT usage. Other language families, such as Na-Dene or Inuit, do not have grammatical gender at all.

The many iImmigrant languages in Canada also vary greatly with respect to grammatical gender. The Chinese languages, the largest in Canada after English and French, do not have grammatical gender and have a single gender neutral pronoun in speaking. The third person pronoun in Chinese is written differently for “he” or “she” but both are pronounced the same. In Mandarin this is “Tā” and in Cantonese “Keoi”. Languages like Persian and Tagalog, both within the ten largest languages spoken in Canada, have no grammatical gender and no gendering in pronouns at all. 

Other immigrant languages share some of the difficulties that French presents. Spanish, a Romance language related to French, is the third largest non-official language in Canada. Spanish is a gendered language similar to French, but gender neutrality has been more easily developed for it. Gender neutral endings for nouns are a frequent subject of discussion amongst Spanish speakers in Canada, the US, and Latin America. Where traditionally words would end in “o” for masculine or “a” for feminine, the endings of “x” or “e” are used to create gender neutrality. An example is “Latino/Latina/Latinx/Latine”. There is considerable debate about the “x” and “e” endings, but many Spanish language organizations in Canada and abroad have come to accept or promote the usage of “x” and “e” endings for gender neutrality. 

Some languages have borrowed gender neutral pronouns from other languages. In German, the eighth largest language in Canada, the English gender neutral pronoun “they” is frequently used. The Scandinavian languages Norwegian and Swedish have attracted attention for borrowing the gender neutral third person pronoun “hen” from  Finnish.

Fig. 2  This graphic created for Wikipedia illustrates the native Swedish pronouns “han” (masculine) and “hon” (feminine) alongside the borrowed neutral Finnish pronoun “hen”.
Grammatical GenderGendered PronounsGender Neutral Pronoun (if known)
EnglishNoYesThey, Xe, Others
FrenchMasculine/FeminineYeslel
ChineseNoNoTā (Mandarin), Keoi (Cantonese), others
PunjabiMasculine/FeminineNoUha
SpanishMasculine/FeminineYesElle
TagalogNoNoSiya
ArabicMasculine/FeminineYesHuma (From Koranic, dual form)
GermanMasculine/FeminineYesThey (Borrowed from English), Xier, Es (equivalent to “it”), use of name
ItalianMasculine/FeminineYesLoro (equivalent to they)
HindustaniMasculine/FeminineNoVah
PortugueseMasculine/FeminineYesElu
PersianNoNoU
CreeAnimate/InanimateNoWiya
OjibwemowinAnimate/InanimateNoWiin
InuktitutNoNoUna
Fig. 3 Grammatical traits of the 10 largest languages and the 3 largest Indigenous languages in Canada

Gender, Sexuality, and Language

The LGBT community in Canada is not only diverse in gender and sexual identities, but also linguistically. Canada is a highly multilingual society, and so too are LGBT Canadians. There are many linguistic challenges for the LGBT community, but dedicated language activists and community members continue to help define inclusive language around for LGBT topics and people. Although the linguistic challenges for LGBT people vary from language to language, the fundamental beliefs in equality and community underlie the creative approaches to word choice in all languages.

Language Documentation Mapped Out

This week I spoke with Professor Marie-Odile Junker of Carleton University. Originally born in France, she has come to Canada and fallen in love with our country’s Indigenous languages. She is an expert in several areas, and excels at bridging disciplines, connecting people, and organizing projects. These are all things that are essential to language documentation and revitalization. She has incorporated technology and digital media into her work on Algonquian languages without ever forgetting the people behind the data.

I spoke with her about how she views technology as a tool that can help languages survive, and also about her work on the Algonquian Language Atlas, which incorporates many languages, people, and technologies. You should definitely play with this site (after reading this first!).

[This is what the incredible Algonquian Linguistic Atlas looks like]

[This is what the incredible Algonquian Linguistic Atlas looks like, click to embiggen]

Michael Iannozzi : What led you to get involved in language documentation?

Marie-Odile Junker : Noticing the lack of resources for teaching Canadian Aboriginal languages and also the fact that I “fell in love” with what I find beautifully intricate languages.

MI : How did you get involved specifically with the documentation of Algonquian languages?

MOJ : As an immigrant from France curious to learn the language(s) of this land, I realized you could learn all kinds of immigrant languages, but not aboriginal languages. In Ottawa, the original language would have been an Algonquian language.

MI : Which languages form the Algonquian family? Where are they spoken?

MOJ : It is one of the largest families in North America, in terms of territory covered, if not in number of speakers. The Cree-Innu dialects and the Ojibwe dialects form the Central Algonquian languages, while languages like Mi’kmaq and Malisset make up the Eastern Algonquian languages

MI : What is the general health of the Algonquian languages?

MOJ : It depends on the community and the place, some have lost their language, some still pass it on to their children, but most are endangered.

MI : Your research focusses a lot on the use of modern technologies for the purposes of language documentation and revitalization; what role do you feel technology has to play in the survival of these languages?

MOJ : Technology and the internet play a role in the development of a collective intelligence in a manner unprecedented in the past. If some languages are not represented and used in the digital age, if they do not infuse the communication technologies available, and if their speakers have to abandon them in order to communicate with each other, those languages will not be part of the development of this collective intelligence and that is a loss for humanity as a whole. [By collective intelligence, Professor Junker refers to the idea of the information that is available to society as a whole. What was once specialized knowledge, or only available to a certain group is now available to society collectively through modern technologies]

MI : Do you feel that technology age has been helpful or harmful to the future of Indigenous languages?

MOJ : Time will tell, probably both. This is like asking if the snowmobile has been helpful or harmful for hunting, or if the cellphone has been helpful or harmful to communication between human beings…

MI : What resources did you draw upon to decide how to begin your language documentation? Were there previous successes with other languages that informed how you approached your efforts?

MOJ : I did not have models in my field; I used an approach called Participatory Action Research, which was pioneered in areas like International Development, and asked myself how to apply it to Linguistics. With PAR, you focus on the research process, so I asked myself: how do I make my intervention as a linguist in a community something that would benefit and empower the speakers with what they wish for their language? Do they feel valued? Do they appreciate their language after working with me? [Although the term “Participatory Action Research” may sound complex, the following response is a great illustration of how this works in practice]

MI : Turning now to the large project of the Algonquian Linguistic Atlas, how did you decide to make this project?

MOJ : It came little by little, a side project that grew out of speakers’ interest. That is how Participatory Action Research works. In 2002, I made a Conversation CD with 21 topics of conversation for East Cree, as a side project to more fully engage the interest of young Cree speakers who I had hired on a summer project to work on a database of Cree verb conjugations. I was worried that they would not see the end of the Verb documentation project (it took 15 more years to complete!). This CD went viral and soon other groups asked me for permission to adapt it to their dialect.

The turning point was after giving a guest talk and a workshop at an aboriginal conference in Prince Albert, in 2004… I was being driven back by two Cree women who had attended my documentation/sound recording workshop (where we were recording common words and phrases of their many dialects), and they were asking me to give them a copy of the map of the Cree-Innu language family I had shown them. They had never understood that they were part of a language family that stretched all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. So it just occurred to me: sounds+map; let’s put it all together! I would like to give credit to those two women for that magical moment.

We made a prototype, then funding came, and Google maps became available the same year (2005). At first it was only Cree-Innu, but 3 or 4 years later we had requests from other languages and dialects. We grew to include them and so on.

MI : What were the obstacles and challenges of putting together such a large project, with so many people involved?

MOJ : Some technical challenges: having to reprogram sustainably (run on cheap servers), having to adapt to contributors’ technical preferences and expertise. We have experienced lots of good will. Some people or groups keep contacting me to join in. It usually just takes a willing person to work with us. They want to be represented there. It is open-access and collaborative, so contributors can do what they wish with their material afterwards.

MI : How did the communities involved feel about your efforts, and how do they feel now that they can see the finished product?

MOJ : In general they love it, they feel proud to be represented and they enjoy listening to their cousins and neighbours. More recently, the production of mobile versions (apps) is extremely popular. We had over 1120 downloads of the East Cree conversation app on iOS alone.

MI : How can a language community promote, document, or revitalize their language through technology?

MOJ : I think the answer depends on the situation. It is like asking how to promote housing with power tools. I think it is really important to think of technology as a tool, not an end in itself, and of speakers as users (or not), otherwise we will end up with machines that talk or write dead languages. [The power tools analogy might at first seem odd, but it is a perfect way of illustrating the key issue of documentation. You can have the best tools—the newest and most advanced technology—but it isn’t the technology that saves a language. It is the people who use the tools]

MI : In the past, the role of a documentary linguist was to go in the field and record or transcribe speech; how have the internet and modern devices changed that?

MOJ : With the internet, we now see the possibility of crowd sourcing (which is NOT what we are doing in the linguistic atlas). The problem might soon be the availability of too much unstructured, unedited data.

The change for me was both in the technology and in the approach. Someone can still go in the field, but use videos instead of pencils to record speech and archive those videos in libraries and depositories, with the speakers being left out of the equation. The use of a Participatory Action Research framework together with the technology is what created the atlas.

MI : What is the role of a documentary linguist today?

MOJ : Considering the crisis we are facing, with languages disappearing as fast as biodiversity, their role is in its title: “document”, but also help preserve, if not for the current heirs, for the future generations. I would also add “infuse life” in those languages, by working WITH speakers who wish it to survive. Not all wish that, we see alternating generation patterns. For example, there are cases of language reclamation like Sami in Scandinavia, with bilingual grandparents, parents who did not speak the language at all or became second-language speakers of it, and now first-language bilingual grandchildren.

MI : What do you think will be the role of a documentary linguist in the future?

MOJ : I am not sure, but I suspect they will still be very busy, unless there is nothing left to document.

MI : What is your favourite part of your work?

MOJ : Connecting (with) people, facilitating the sharing of resources, doing linguistic analysis, marvelling at linguistic diversity, hearing people speak in their diverse beautiful languages…

MI : What has been the most important thing you’ve learned through working with Indigenous languages and communities?

MOJ : Nothing ever happens as planned, but something interesting eventually happens.

MI : What would you like to do next, or where would you like to see the Atlas project headed next?

MOJ : We got funding for 5 years to develop a digital infrastructure for Algonquian languages, especially dictionaries. I see the Atlas becoming a portal for those languages’ resources, still with the initial intent of allowing groups not to reinvent the wheel, but also to share educational resources, or anything that is needed to keep their language alive, and let it stay alive with modern communication.

[These are the languages represented. Even those spoken by very few, such as Michif, are a part of this Atlas]

[The Atlas’ languages. Even those spoken by very few, such as Michif, are a part of this Atlas]

A huge thank you to Professor Junker for speaking with me about her great work.

Documenting languages is a huge amount of work. Though technology can help spread information quickly and over great distances, without people to use it, you have a ‘tree falling in the forest’ situation. Thanks to open-source data and increasingly user-friendly software, sharing information with people across the globe is easier than ever.

The goal and success in documenting and preserving a language is that, even if the community doesn’t need those resources today, we, as a society, leave for future generations the tools to reawaken their languages.

So check out Prof. Junker’s Algonquian Language Atlas, and maybe you’ll feel inspired to start a project of your own!

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

They Are Standing the Words Back Up

This week I spoke with someone from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, which is the community that is the subject of Raising the Words; a short documentary from Chloë Ellingson.

Callie Hill is the Executive Director of the Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna Language and Cultural Centre, and she has a great deal of experience engaging with, and organizing the education of the Mohawk language. As a Mohawk herself, she also relates personally to the significance of losing the Mohawk language.

I spoke with her both about the language and how to save a language that needs our help.

[Callie in her office]

[Callie in her Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna office]

Michael Iannozzi : What led you to get involved in revitalizing the Mohawk language?

Callie Hill : I think that having children was one of the defining moments in my life that made me realize how important the Mohawk language and culture is. And now I have a grandson so it is even more important to me. I am not a speaker, but I do have a base of language knowledge which I have gained from years of taking language programs. I hope to be able to continue learning the language so that I can pass this along to my grandchildren. My parents did not speak, but I did hear my paternal grandfather speak the language, which I don’t recall knowing was indeed Mohawk. He died when I was nine and he was the only person in my family that I ever heard speaking the language.

In 2004, I began to work for Tsi Tyonnheht Onkwawenna (TTO) as the Coordinator. At the time that I joined I was the only full-time employee. My role for the past ten years has been to create, develop and oversee Mohawk language programs in the community, which I have been doing as a non-speaker. By this I mean that I have been the Administrator of the programs, and never a teacher of the language. We now have a staff complement of six teachers, one teacher assistant, a part-time curriculum specialist, an Administrative Assistant and myself, the Executive Director.

MI :What does a typical day consist of in your work?

CH : As the Executive Director of the TTO Language and Cultural Centre, my typical day is administrative work. I write proposals, prepare reporting, oversee the staff and work on new programming. Because my office is at the primary immersion school I also act in the position of “Principal”, so some of my time is helping the teachers in this capacity. So really I don’t have a typical day because you just never know what can happen. We all very much work as a team in every aspect of our organization. Everyone is willing to pitch in and help where they can: being a community, that is what we are all about. For instance, the primary school had a Valentine cookie fundraiser in February and collectively in one day we raised $800, by baking and selling a total of 800 cookies at $1 each – that was a great success!

MI : Where do your revitalization efforts take place?

CH : Kenhteke (Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory) is a Kanyenkehaka (Mohawk people) territory located in eastern Ontario between Belleville and Kingston. Our land is based along the shores of the Bay of Quinte, which is off of Lake Ontario. Historically, we relocated here in 1784 after being displaced from our homelands in Upper New York State in the Mohawk Valley. Our on-reserve population is around 2,200 people.

MI : How are you approaching the revival of the Mohawk language?

CH : Because we recognize the importance of inter-generational transmission of the language for it to thrive, we operate programs geared towards different age categories. We have three levels of educational programs: Totahne (At Gramma’s place) Language Nest, which opened in 2007, is a total immersion program for pre-schoolers; Kawenna’on:we (The First Words) Primary Immersion School, which opened in 2011, is for children from Senior Kindergarten to Gr 4; and the Shatiwennakaratats (They are standing the words back up) Adult Language Program, which started in 2004, is a full-time program for adults. The children’s programs are total immersion, and the adult program, while intense in nature, uses various methods to teach the language which includes not only speaking but reading and writing.

MI : Do you think your approach would work for others (or all) Mohawk communities?

CH : Almost all other Mohawk communities are using formal educational programs such as ours. However our biggest challenge is that we do not have any mother tongue speakers in our community and all of our programs are taught by teachers who have learned the language as an adult. We have one fluent grandmother that works at Totahne as we recognized the importance of having a fluent speaker in that program with the very young children, and we were fortunate at the time to find someone willing to relocate to Kenhteke. Totahne is very much just like spending a day with “gramma” or in our case “Tota”. We also bring in fluent speakers throughout the year in the adult program as it is important for our students to hear language in its most natural form. We network with the other Mohawk communities as we are all in the same situation of trying to ensure our language thrives in our communities.

MI : How did you decide to begin this language training and what resources did you draw upon?

CH : In 2002 TTO formulated a long-term strategic plan which laid the groundwork for the revitalization efforts in the community; the plan was to teach the adults to speak—teach them to be teachers of the language, so that we could begin an immersion school for children. We have since met these goals through various ways and means. So now we continue to build upon this framework. The organization continues to hold strategic planning sessions each year.

MI : Why do you think the language has reached the point where it needs a revival?

CH : People quit speaking the language in our community for various reasons but in my opinion they all point back to colonization. In particular I am speaking of the influence of the Church through the missionaries and the Indian Act. I believe these to be the over-arching reasons which led to parents choosing not to speak Mohawk to their children, and once the intergenerational transmission in the homes was interrupted, it lead to the demise of the language in our community. By my estimation we have not had a generation of mother-tongue speakers who used the Mohawk language in daily life since the late 1800’s.

MI : How does the community feel about your efforts, and how did they feel when you started?

CH : When TTO organized in the late 1990’s there were mixed emotions about revitalization efforts. There was a group of supporters who were very committed to the efforts, and there were also some older people who thought it better left alone, basically to die. I believe the community is supportive of our efforts today. We see support in many ways throughout the community: road signs in the language, people naming their children with only a Mohawk name, people in all our service organizations answering the phones with “She:kon!” (translated in that context as “hello!”), gravestones with Mohawk names engraved on them, the financial support of our local politicians. So I see this as support in many different capacities.

MI : What has been the biggest challenge in revitalizing the Mohawk language?

CH : Funding of programs is an ongoing challenge and we are grateful to our local government, the Tyendinaga Mohawk Council, who have been very supportive financially. Also in this modern world we live in, I don’t believe people realize how colonized they are – some don’t see any point in learning the language in this materialistic, economy driven world we live in.

MI : What do you think is the chance of success for the Mohawk language revitalization project?

CH : I have to say that I have total confidence in our efforts to revitalize our language. There is no other acceptable answer in my opinion. I think it is necessary for us to continue to educate the people in our community, and I see through providing education and awareness the efforts will continue to grow.

MI : What do you feel is a key factor for the revitalization’s success?

CH : I think a key factor is the commitment shown by everyone in the process. From those of us doing the administrative work to the people who are enrolled in our programs and the parents who put their trust in us to educate their children, we all have a vitally important role to play in our efforts.

MI : What is your favourite part of your work?

CH : This work is my life’s passion. I could not see me doing anything other than what I do. I get so much satisfaction when I hear anyone speaking the language, from the children to the adults. I am grateful for the opportunity to be working so closely to something that is so important not only to me, but to many people in my family and my community.

MI : How have the youth, adults, and elders reacted to your efforts?

CH : There is a group of people who I credit for the original push for language and cultural opportunities in the community back 10-15 years ago. These people are now in their 30’s and they are the ones who are raising their children with language and culture. For the past few years there seems to be another group of young people who are very interested in learning the language and culture. This is very exciting for us. I think it is critically important that young people gain this knowledge prior to having children in hopes that they will raise their children in our language and our ways. Our language is not safe until we have a complete generation of speakers, and ideally this will be children who continue the process by teaching and speaking to their children.

MI : What has been the most important thing you’ve learned through this project?

CH : I have learned that nothing good is easy! I think my mother used to say that! We have had our struggles along the way, but the satisfaction of hearing the language being spoken by children or hearing it at the store is so satisfying. We have come from a community of virtually no speakers to one where language can be heard in many contexts. We are now able to conduct our ceremonies at our longhouse totally in the Mohawk language. It can sometimes feel as if we are making no progress so in those times it is important to reflect on where we were ten years ago compared to where we are today. It is nothing short of amazing, and it is the combined efforts of every person in the community who has made the revitalization of language a priority in his/her life.

MI : What would you like to do next, or where you like to see the revitalization projects head next?

CH : I am currently working on my Masters in Indigenous Language Revitalization through the University of Victoria. My project has been a community wide survey on the health, status and vitality of the language, and I am hopeful that I will be able to use some of what I have learned through that process to create more opportunities for people in our community in terms of revitalizing and regenerating our language and culture.

[A classroom of children learning the Mohawk language in Tyendinaga]

[A classroom of children learning the Mohawk language in Tyendinaga]

Callie hits on many points that are an essential part of the revitalization of any language. Perhaps most importantly that it isn’t easy! This project was started by a dedicated and small group who refused to allow their ancestral language to disappear. For them, it was worth their time and effort to save, and they worked very hard to reach that goal. As Callie says, if there is a committed group of people willing to work toward preserving and revitalizing the language then the language will be saved. Callie has no doubts that Mohawk will be saved, and with people like her working toward saving languages, I have no doubts either.

She also mentions that in the “materialistic, economy-driven” society that we far too often embrace there are those who might not value this kind of work. Some people see Mohawk, and any other language, as a means to an end—of gaining employment or economic gains. But to me this feels wrong. People don’t only learn (and shouldn’t only learn) a language because it is economically valuable. Language learners should be able to see the social and personal value of their language. The Mohawk language has significant cultural value for the people whose ancestors spoke it. This is a tremendous benefit that can’t easily be measured.

Thank you to Callie for her time for this interview. Her work is invaluable to the fabric of the story of us as Ontarians, Canadians, and ultimately as human beings.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi