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When two (or more) languages are in contact, one possibility is that they both will hold their own (maintenance of both languages); another is that one will give way partially or completely to the other (with the possible death of one of the languages); yet another, is that new languages will be formed.
Evaluation of the Canada – NWT Cooperation Agreement for French and
Aboriginal Languages in the NWT; Literature Review; GNWT

There are a number of possible factors that contribute to language shift:

  • forced change (such as being punished for speaking one's language);
  • domination of one language group over the economy, education, and civic structures of the society;
  • inter-cultural marriages; and
  • geographic movement (usually from rural to urban areas - decreasing the number of speakers in a given area).

Researchers generally agree that these factors are complex and inter-related; there is no simple formula for language loss – each geographic and cultural situation is different.

There are also a few circumstances where language shifts do not occur. These include:

  • geographic isolation, where a group of speakers is not in direct contact with a dominant language (such as small Cree and Inuit communities in northern Canada);
  • self-imposed cultural boundaries (such as the case with Quebec);
  • externally imposed boundaries (an isolation or segregation of cultures, such as happened on Reserves); and
  • situations in which the two languages have different functions in society (for example, religious use vs. everyday use).

Recently, geographic isolation has become less of an influence on the protection of Aboriginal languages because of the widespread availability and incursion of television into remote communities through satellite technology.

Historically, there are very few societies that have maintained widespread bilingualism. In fact, it has been stated that no society needs or has two languages for the same function, so language shift is the norm. For example, within Canada, in spite of official English-French bilingualism, there are few predominantly French-monolingual or even bilingual communities outside of Quebec and northern New Brunswick.

The fact that language shift is the norm is of immediate and critical concern to Aboriginal language proponents. Any strategies to maintain and revitalize a language must acknowledge and develop strategies to overcome this tendency for cultures to shift, over time, to a more dominant language.

people doing drum danceInterestingly, in Canada, an example of a reverse shift in language use occurred during the early years of the fur trade. Many traders, or their Metis children, learned English or French and the local Aboriginal language. When trading furs, the early languages used in commerce were the Aboriginal languages. Given this economic incentive, Euro-Canadians, in many instances, made rapid language shifts.

In effect, for a language to be maintained, there must be an immediate and perceivable benefit within at least some aspect of people's current lives to continue to understand and speak the traditional language. Maintaining a language for its intrinsic or historical value does not appear to provide enough widespread incentive within a culture group to sustain a language indefinitely, particularly when there are strong social pressures and benefits attached to the use of another, more dominant, language.

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