First Nations English dialects

Jessica Ball, MPH, Ph.D.
Barbara May Bernhardt, Ph.D.
Sharla Peltier, Ph.D.
Jeff Deby, Ph.D.
Laura Fraser, B.A. (Nu-chah-nulth Tribal Association)
Lori Speck, 'Namgis First Nation

Project background

This project was inspired by Indigenous students at post-secondary institutions who approached Jessica Ball with their experience learning to use academic English. These students described a kind of code-switching from the way they use oral and written language in their communities to so-called Standard English. They perceived that this requirement to learn a new dialect was not understood at universities and that they were not given enough support or time to make the shift. At the same time, Jessica and colleagues had been hearing repeatedly from speech-language pathologists that Indigenous families are “hard to serve”, that high numbers of young First Nations children, especially in rural and remote communities, are “unintelligible” and developmentally delayed with regards to speech and language development. We wondered if there was a lack of understanding of home or local dialects and whether dialect differences may sometimes be misinterpreted as speech-language deficits.

First nations english dialects

This project area explores the influences of Indigenous language heritage and cultural aspects of language socialization on some English-speaking Indigenous peoples’ speech, language, and communication practices. Dialect learning and features of language-mediated interaction using varieties of the dominant language have implications for education, developmental assessment, early intervention, cultural preservation, and social justice. First steps in exploring this topic in Canada have been taken by Jessica Ball, Barbara May Bernhardt, Sharla Peltier and others within the Early Childhood Development Intercultural Partnerships group, concurrent with a small number of practitioners and linguists. The concept of First Nations English dialects is only beginning to be acknowledged and is very under-explored in Canada. It has been most extensively explored in Australia.

Project goal

This exploratory project area aims to stimulate broader interest within the fields of linguistics, education, and speech-language pathology in Indigenous English dialects. It has begun to raise awareness of the need to appreciate the language skills that Indigenous children may possess although they may be using a variant of English not familiar to members of the dominant culture who are listening for ‘the Queen’s English.’ Knowledge mobilization from exploratory studies focuses on the field of speech-language pathology to promote critical thinking about the use of standardized screening and diagnostic assessment tools.

Project outcomes

  • Literature review and synthesis. Through a review of published and anecdotal observations of variations in English language learning and use among Indigenous peoples in Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, the project has produced a synthesis of what is known, what is hypothesized,  and where future investigators might begin a program of research about Indigenous English dialects in Canada.
  • Public awareness. The project has promoted awareness of 'non-standard' English dialects as  embodiments of contemporary First Nations’ cultures and possibly as vestiges of  local Indigenous languages, rather than as  developmental deficits.
  • Assessment practices. In consultation with First Nations speech-language specialists and community members, as well as with non-Indigenous linguists, the project urges critical thinking about the use of mainstream assessment methods and tools. General guidelines for assessment practices that can distinguish between 'language difference' and 'language delay or impairment' have been disseminated with the aim of increasing appropriate responses from teachers and speech-language service practitioners.
  • Early intervention practices. Implications of dialect language learning and forms of interaction for understanding Indigenous children's communication and development have been explored in consultation with speech-language pathologists and early intervention specialists.
  • Language specialists' training. Guidelines have been developed to supplement curriculum for pre-service and in-service training for speech-language pathologists and educators to increase their awareness of cultural differences in language socialization patterns, goals, and expectations, and their appreciation of legitimate 'non-standard' forms of English.
  • English as a Second Dialect funding. The project has contributed suggestions about what funding for 'English as a Second Dialect' in schools could most usefully do to protect First Nations children's home language while helping children learn to standard English and to code-switch depending on their communication context.


B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development through the Human Early Learning Partnership: