Saturday, 3 December 2016

Revitalising Aboriginal Languages

Last week, the Consulate General of the United States in Quebec City invited some people interested in the future of Aboriginal languages to a videoconference organised by the Department of State in Washington, D.C. Two experts from the Smithsonian Institution talked about programmes to revitalise Aboriginal languages. This was a multiplex conference between Washington, D.C., Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. It appeared during the meeting that there were listeners in other countries as well, at least in Ivory Coast and Bolivia. I am still not sure about the objectives of such a meeting: perhaps the organisers sought to create a new right of interference to protect endangered languages and cultures abroad.

The experts first presented the situation of endangered languages around the world, making the now common comparison with the disappearance of animal and plant species. The Breath of Life programme for language revitalisation was also presented. Examples were given of children brought to a museum to show them pieces of pottery and to teach them at the same time the vocabulary of the natives who had made them. Rather a backward-looking approach to revitalise languages, I would say. But, after all, the Smithsonian is primarily known for its museums.

But first a remark on a technical aspect. Images during this multiplex conference were often blurry when they did not freeze. Not at all the quality of images that the pilots have at their disposal with remote-control drones in the Homeland TV series. I wondered in petto what it is like for the drones that are currently sent to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The conference began at 2 pm and abruptly ended at 3 pm although we had been informed that it would last an hour and a half. This was a blessing in disguise because the Quebec City group continued the discussion – which was more interesting, I would venture to say, than the videoconference itself. Our group was composed of Wendat (Huron), an Abenaki, an Algonquin, perhaps an Innu (or Montagnais as they were formerly called, here I have a memory lapse), and a few Euro-Canadians. There were also three contributors to my book Quebec’s Aboriginal Languages (French edition 1992, English edition 1996).

Few know that the Wendat are trying to revive their language which ceased to be spoken more than a century ago. One of them pointed out the necessity, in order to revive the ancestral language and to use it in everyday life, to find equivalents for words as common to us as sidewalk or fan (for this object, he argued that the solution would be to use a term that would be equivalent to a periphrasis in English – she pushes the wind – adding the further explanation that there is a preponderance of the feminine in the Wendat language). This intervention would seem at odds with the backward-looking (or even purist) vision that seemed to be presented during the videoconference. For the Smithsonian expert did not address the theme of language modernisation, an essential feature if endangered languages are to be used again fully in everyday life. Let me add here that this topic has been studied at length and extensively exemplified in the six-volume series Language Reform: History and Future edited by István Fodor and Claude Hagège (1983-1994).

For my part I quoted from Statistics Canada's analysis of the 2011 Census questions on Aboriginal languages: "According to the 2011 Census, almost 213,500 people reported an Aboriginal mother tongue and nearly 213,400 people reported speaking an Aboriginal language most often or regularly at home". A mere difference of only 100 between the two figures. This sentence calls for two comments. First, it is unlikely that Aboriginal languages do not show linguistic assimilation. Secondly there is no mention of linguistic assimilation as such. On the contrary, it is suggested that English or French speakers would switch to Aboriginal languages: "In 2011, almost 213,400 people reported speaking an Aboriginal language at home. While 82.2% of them reported that same Aboriginal language as their mother tongue, the other 17.8% reported a different language, such as English or French, as mother tongue". These data are astonishing in the light of the situation prior to 2011. Here is what Louis-Jacques Dorais wrote in my book Les langues autochtones du Québec (published in 1992; at that time, the 1991 census data were not yet available):

The comparison between mother tongue and home language makes it possible to calculate the conservation rate of Aboriginal languages (home language / mother tongue). In 1971, this rate was 85.4% among Aboriginals in Quebec. This means that of all Aboriginal speakers, 83.8% spoke their ancestral language at home, 14.7% spoke English, 1.3% spoke French, and 0.2% spoke another language (Bernèche and Normandeau, 1983). The linguistic transfers from Aboriginal languages were therefore massively towards English.

In 1986, the conservation rate of Aboriginal languages (excluding Mohawk) was 95.8%, a figure probably close to that of 1971. That same year, the rate of conservation of Aboriginal languages spoken outside the Montreal area was estimated at 94%. It is also probable that in 1986 linguistic transfers continued to be directed mainly towards English, but probably to a somewhat lesser extent than in 1971, the influence of French having then increased slightly in Aboriginal communities.

Among the Inuit, the Inuktitut conservation rate was 98.6% in 1986, probably the same as in 1981. Few transfers were registered, mainly to English.

Demographers should therefore undertake serious analyses of the 2011 census data on Aboriginal languages.

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