Indigenous language revitalization

Jessica Ball, MPH, PhD
Onowa McIvor, PhD
“It’s been a cold 130 years for Canada’s first languages, and the thaw is still awaited” (Fettes and Norton, 2000: 29).

Project background

Indigenous languages around the world are at risk of extinction largely because of government and institutional policies that have actively opposed or neglected them. Globally, most Indigenous children have no opportunity to participate in an early childhood or school-based program that recognizes or builds on their cultural heritage, including their Indigenous language. In low- and middle-income countries, Indigenous children are among the most likely not to enrol in school, to lose their motivation for formal learning, and to leave school before completing a credential. In Canada, many Indigenous early childhood practitioners and funding agencies are asking: "Are we doing all we can to support Indigenous children to achieve their full potential? Are we achieving our goals for transmission of culture and language to Indigenous youngsters?”

It is expected that over half of the world’s 7000 languages and the knowledges they represent will not survive past the end of this century. Language-in-education policies must support Indigenous children and families to become proficient in their Indigenous language. As enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to which all government in the world are signatories (except the United States), governments must honour the rights of Indigenous children to be educated in their language and according to their heritage, with culturally meaningful curricula, cultural safety, and dignity.

In Canada, the Calls to Action generated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission specifically address the urgency of acting now to help Indigenous communities revitalize their languages. While progress has been made by territorial governments, most provincial governments have yet to demonstrate serious support for Indigenous language revitalization.

Project goal

This project area involves working to increase awareness of the current state of Indigenous language devastation and the past and present colonial policies that are escalating language depletion. Work in this area supports and makes visible promising developments in community-driven heritage language teaching. The project also promotes an ecologically comprehensive strategy for Indigenous language revitalization that draws on and goes beyond the roles of formal schooling. Along with First Nations community partners, this project has explored how Indigenous languages can be maintained and revitalized, how proficient speakers can be created, and how early childhood programs can play a role. Seeing language of instruction and culture in curriculum as two sides of the same coin, this project area not only focuses on language learning but also documents examples of how Indigenous knowledges, pedagogies, and practices can be embodied in early childhood and school curricula.

Project outcomes

Through collaborations with early childhood care practitioners in First Nations, reports in this project area highlight:

  1. First Nations practitioners' goals for cultural transmission in children's programs and how they set out to achieve these goals
  2. Program elements that First Nations practitioners in early childhood programs identify and define as ‘Indigenous cultural elements’
  3. The role and cultural influence of First Nations child-care practitioners on children's cultural programming and development
  4. Impacts of cultural childcare programs on children's cultural literacy and identity
  5. Canada’s cold climate for Indigenous languages, as a country that recognizes only two colonial language (English and French) as ‘founding languages’ while most Canadians are monolingual
  6. Policy reforms needed to support an ecologically comprehensive strategy for Indigenous language revitalization that draws on and goes beyond formal schooling to include support for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous adults to become proficient speakers of an Indigenous language.
Ecology of Indigenous Language Preservation graphic
Work within this project area supported the launch of Canada’s first, nationally-networked action research project: NEȾOLṈEW̱ (“one mind, one people” or “doing things as one”). Led by Dr. Onowa McIvor at the University of Victoria, NEȾOLṈEW̱ builds on existing networks of Indigenous organizations and those already working at the centre of language revitalization. The project aims for realistic language revitalization outcomes through sharing, expanding, and evaluating Indigenous adult language learning resources, programs, and initiatives. By strengthening capacity among Indigenous people and maximizing the resources, the project contributes to nation‐wide Indigenous resurgence and revitalization of the Indigenous languages of Canada.


View all reports and resources related to this project.