Aboriginal languages in Canada are struggling to survive. This is part of a global pattern. About 3,000 of the world’s 6,000-7,000 languages are viewed to be endangered. 95% of languages are spoken by only 6% of the world’s people – 25% have less than 1000 speakers.
The First Peoples’ Heritage Language and Culture Council (FPHLCC), a British Columbia crown corporation to assist B.C. First Nations in their efforts to revitalize their languages, arts and cultures, has a produced a report (pdf) on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages, which finds native languages in BC (map of languages) are seriously endangered.
Gitsenimx is the language with the most speakers (1,219), all other have less than a thousand speakers, and only Tsilhqot’in and Dakelh have more than 500.
The report states:
- Fluent First Nations language speakers make up a small and shrinking minority of the B.C. First Nations population
- Eight languages are severely endangered and twenty two are nearly extinct
- Most fluent speakers are over 65
- The majority of classroom teaching is insufficient to create enough new fluent speakers to revitalize languages.
In the press release for the report Dr. Lorna Williams, Chair of the Board at the First Peoples’ Council and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Learning at the University of Victoria explains:
British Columbia is home to 60% of the indigenous languages in Canada as well as distinct language families not found anywhere else in the world. The cultural and linguistic diversity of B.C. is a priceless treasure for all of humanity and this report shows that more must be done to protect it. With this report, we now have concrete evidence of what we have known for some time: all First Nations languages in B.C. are in a critical state.
I am encouraged by the many fantastic community-based language programs detailed in the report, but unfortunately, they are not enough to stem the loss. I sincerely hope this report is recognized as a call-to-action to save our languages before it is too late.
John Whitfield has an interesting review article Across the Curious Parallel of Language and Species Evolution in PLoS Biology (PLoS Biol 6(7): e186) on language and species evolution.
One parallel between living things and languages is that their most important components show the least variation. In biology, this means that genes such as those involved in the machinery of protein synthesis change so slowly that they can be used to discern the relationships of groups that diverged hundreds of millions of years ago. Likewise, the most commonly used words, such as numbers and pronouns, change the most slowly. Looking at 200 of the commonest words in 87 Indo-European languages, Pagel’s team found that the frequency with which they are used in everyday speech explains 50% of the variation in the rate of word change . Similarly, Erez Lieberman, an evolutionary theorist at Harvard University, and his colleagues have found that over the past millennium, English verbs have become regularized at a rate inversely proportional to their frequency . The frequency effect means that some rates of lexical replacement are comparable to the evolutionary rates of some genes, says Pagel; he thinks that these words might allow researchers to build family trees showing the relationships between languages reaching back 20 millennia, compared with the 8,000 years or so that most linguists currently think possible.
Earlier this year, Pagel and his colleagues uncovered another parallel between linguistic and biological change. Languages, they found, change slowly for a long time, and then undergo a sudden burst of change —what biologists call punctuated equilibrium. These bursts seem to coincide with periods of linguistic speciation, when populations split and their languages diverge. Looking at trees of Indo-European, Austronesian, and Bantu languages, the researchers found that those languages that had gone through the most splits had changed more, with up to a third of changes being associated with split points. Pagel suggests that languages change when populations split because groups consciously or unconsciously use how they talk to define themselves and separate insiders from outsiders—as in the Old Testament book of Judges, when the men of Gilead identify their Ephraimite foes by their inability to pronounce the Hebrew word for an ear of grain, shibboleth, now a general term for a linguistic password.