Indigenous languages of New Brunswick: an endangered heritage

Posted by Elise Miranda on April 22, 2011

By Elise Miranda, cultural attaché at the Consulate-General of France in Atlantic Canada.


Official French-English bilingualism

Painting by Pascal A. Pelletier, artist/owner of the native art gallery KLU'SKAP in Moncton. Photo : Pascal A. Pelletier

Painting by Pascal A. Pelletier, artist/owner of the native art gallery KLU'SKAP in Moncton. Photo : Pascal A. Pelletier

New Brunswick, eastern Canada, is the only officially bilingual province of the country. Indeed as soon as 1969 Louis Robichaud’s provincial government voted the “Act on the Official Languages of New Brunswick”, directly inspired from the federal act of the same name, which Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s government had adopted the same year in Ottawa. This is the only province in Canada that applies federal bilingual standards. Therefore, « New Brunswick has its own legislation regarding official languages, parallel French and English school systems, and laws insuring both groups are treated in equal manner by the government. »

Settled in today’s eastern Canada since the 17th century, the Acadians have lived through an eventful history: massively deported from New Brunswick by the English troops between 1755 and 1763, they gradually returned at the end of the 18th century. They now form a people of over 350,000 speakers of French and cover 32,7% of the province population, most of the remaining two thirds being speakers of English.

Endangered indigenous languages

But New Brunswick is also, and actually above all, the land of American Indian tribes: there are three of them, all belonging to the Wabanaki linguistic group of the Algonquian language family:

- the Micmac, present all over Atlantic Canada as well as Quebec, who were always the region’s dominant ethnic group;

- the Maliseet and the Passamaquody, present in Quebec, Maine and western New Brunswick, along Saint John river for the former, and over the banks of the bay bearing their name for the latter. These two peoples are believed to have divided as recently as the 18th century. Their languages and cultures, which are quite similar, clearly differ from those of the Micmac.

This leaves Micmac as the province’s third largest mother language, although its speakers cover only 0,4% of the population.

Aging speakers

In a report titled « the Right to Identity, Culture and Language; a Child’s Path to Development », New Brunswick Ombudsman (Child and Youth Advocate) Bernard Richard writes « New Brunswickers may pride themselves on being experts in the area of official language minority rights and preserving and protecting official language minorities. However, our record in preserving and promoting indigenous languages and cultures, which are unique to our part of the world, can only be described – given the data available below – as an abject failure. »

The report point out that only one third of the 20,000 souls of the Micmac Nation have kept using their language, and that the population is aging. Besides, the number of New Brunswickers claiming Maliseet as mother language has dropped from 860 in 2006 to 490 in 2011.

In another report titled « Hand in Hand, A Review of the First Nations Child Welfare in New Brunswick » (2010), the same Bernard Richard outlines that up to 72% of indigenous children aged 6 to 14 are unable to speak or understand the language of their grandparents. This generation of children is now the last one bearing a chance of being raised in an indigenous language environment, as well as to « be able one day to share their people’s stories and songs with the generations to come. »

Painting by Pascal A. Pelletier, artist/owner of the native art gallery KLU'SKAP in Moncton. Photo : Pascal A. Pelletier

Painting by Pascal A. Pelletier, artist/owner of the native art gallery KLU'SKAP in Moncton. Photo : Pascal A. Pelletier

An alarming situation

While Micmac is still spoken in the reservations of the First Nation, Maliseet is largely on the brink of extinction. Passamaquoddy has probably already disappeared, or at best, has blended with the similar Maliseet language. The world nowadays counts no more than 1,500 speakers of the two dialects combined (Maliseet and Passamaquoddy), the majority of whom is aged. So this language is truly endangered and the worst is likely to happen if nothing is done to restore its use among the children.

Given the relative remoteness of these indigenous peoples, the population of New Brunswick isn’t really informed of the situation. Awareness is growing among various players and authorities of the area, but an actual awareness and restoration campaign must be launched as soon as possible in hope to preserve these indigenous languages.


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Linguistic ecology in Luxembourg

Posted by Sabine Ehrhart on April 15, 2011

By Sabine Ehrhart, associate professor in ethnolinguistics, University of Luxembourg.


What is linguistic ecology?

Luxembourg – Photo : LeJyBy (cc)

Just as ecology studies the bonds between living elements in a given space, linguistic ecology studies the bonds between languages, or rather between the people who speak certain languages, within a given area.

Thus linguistic ecology includes a dynamic vision of languages, centered on humans and their social interaction; a crucial change compared to many other approaches of language science, which have tended to focus on linguistic systems and their inner mechanisms.

Most recently, linguistic ecology has found an application in the school environment, and carries the promises of new solutions to the challenges that are faced nowadays. Indeed, linguistic ecology studies the links between the languages of school as well as those of the society surrounding school, and therefore it is able to suggest perspectives in education policy and linguistic development, with an aim to improve the chances of a large number of pupils.

Luxembourg, home to one of the richest linguistic diversities in Europe

Luxembourg is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in Europe, a linguistic diversity that can be explained by the country’s location at the heart of the continent as well as by significant immigration movements along the 20th century.

Another specific feature of Luxembourg is that the languages spoken there aren’t shared over different geographical zones: instead, they coexist actively in everyone’s life. A phenomenon we have called multiplurilingualism.

At school, pupils first use Luxembourgish in the lower grades, then German is introduced with the acquisition of basic literacy (around 6), and thirdly, French is introduced from the age of 8.

To these three main languages can be added the learning of foreign languages: English, Spanish, and sometimes Italian.

Also worth noting are the heritage languages of the immigration children, spoken at home by nearly half of the pupils.

The LACETS project

This is the context that gave birth to the LACETS research project (Langues en contact dans l’espace et dans le temps et leur impact sur le milieu scolaire – « Language encounters in space and time and their impact on the educational environment ») at the University of Luxembourg, a project engaging an ecolinguistic approach.

In the course of our research, we have observed and analyzed different models that involve linguistic and cultural diversity at school:

-  tutoring in Luxembourgish,

- parallel courses in Portuguese at school hours, for children from the country’s large Portuguese community (accounting for 80% of the pupils with a foreign background),

- tutoring in other migrant languages outside the schooling sphere,

- overall valorization of all the pupils’ languages, unlimited to the official languages of education.

We have followed different classes at preschool and primary school level over a four-year study, to reach the conclusion that involving all of the languages brought by the children was more advantageous for all the participants and all the languages than focusing on only one.

This involvement could be somewhat symbolic for some of the languages, at specific times of school life such as greetings, or through ‘bon appetit’ and ‘happy birthday’ songs. The fact that all the languages were allowed to resonate in the context of school granted some degree of freedom to the children, including when it came to learning other languages such as those of the education system, or those spoken by their classmates.

Detailed assessment of the results is still in process, especially in regards to skill development in each of the languages involved (that of home, of education, etc.), this will be extended through the naturalink research project launched in April 2011.


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Multilingualism in Pakistan

Posted by Matthias Weinreich on April 8, 2011

By Matthias Weinreich who has been working for many years as a linguist in Northern Pakistan with a special focus on Dardic languages and Pashto; author of  Language Shift in Northern Pakistan. The Case of Domaakí and Pashto“.

Northern Pakistan, 2003 - Photo: bogavanterojo (cc)

Northern Pakistan, 2003 - Photo: bogavanterojo (cc)

But the people in Pakistan, they all speak Urdu, don’t they?

Yes, most of them certainly do. And this is not surprising, since all over the country Urdu is used as medium of instruction in primary education and as language of interethnic communication. In addition to this, Urdu in Pakistan also enjoys an extraordinary high official prestige: It is one of the two languages explicitly mentioned in the 1973 constitution (the other one is English, spoken mostly by the urban elite) and it serves as a key symbol of the country´s national unity.

However, one should not lose out of sight that Urdu is and has always been the mother tongue of only a minority (presently about 8 %) of the population of Pakistan. The rest of the people (more than 150 million) speak other languages as their mother tongues.

So, how many different languages are there spoken in the country?

This is difficult to say, as a precise answer would, of course, be linked to the not always easy task of differentiating between a language and a dialect. For example, depending on the criteria applied, Pothohari, Siraiki and Hindko, all of them members of the Punjabi-related dialectal continuum prevalent in western and central Pakistan, can be regarded as varieties of one vernacular (Punjabi), or as three independent languages.

In any case, a conservative estimate would be that there are not less than 60 languages spoken as mother tongues in Pakistan. Reflecting the region´s long and eventful history, these idioms represent a variety of language families and branches, mostly of Indo-Aryan and Iranian extraction. But they also include representatives of Dravidian (Brahui, in central Balochistan), Sino-Tibetan (Balti, in the east of Gilgit-Baltistan) and even one language isolate (Burushaski, in the northern valleys of Nager, Hunza and Yasin).

The number of speakers of each language varies from more than 50 million people in the case of Punjabi to less than 250 souls for Aer (Sindh) and Gowro (Gilgit-Baltistan).

Matthias Weinreich in Pakistan - Photo : Silvia Delogu

Matthias Weinreich in Pakistan - Photo : Silvia Delogu

Are some of those languages seriously endangered ?

In Northern Pakistan alone there are no less than four languages which are threatened by extinction: Gowro, Badeshi, Ushojo and Domaakí.

Socio-linguistic data from the region is scarce, but at least in case of Domaakí (the language of the Dóoma, traditional blacksmiths and musicians in Gilgit-Baltistan), general multilingualism among its few remaining speakers (less than 250 people, mostly elderly) is accompanied by a strongly negative language attitude, a truly inauspicious combination which makes it rather probable that in one to two generations the Dóoma´s original mother tongue will cease to exist as a living language.

Besides Urdu, are there any other languages of interethnic communication?

Yes, there are, and quite a number of them. While Urdu is spoken and written throughout the country, each of Pakistan’s federal provinces is characterized by its own distinctive majority language:

- In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pashto is used as lingua franca on all its territory except in the north, where this function is fulfilled by Dardic Chitrali.

- Punjabi is the language of Punjab, with its variety Hindko used as lingua franca at the northern border with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and its south(weste)rn varieties Multani and Siraiki on the territory close to Sindh and Balochistan.

- Sindhi is majority language and provincial lingua franca in most of Sindh, but in the southern megalopolis of Karachi it retreats before Urdu and in the north of the province it gradually gives way to Siraiki.

- In Balochistan most people speak Balochi, except alongside its frontier with Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the main medium of interethnic communication is Pashto.

As one would expect, it is in the zones where two or more regional communication languages overlap that multilingualism is most prevalent. For example, Siraiki and Sindhi mother tongue speakers living on both sides of the Sindh/Punjab administrative divide will often be fluent in each other´s languages. While Pashto speakers resident in Hazara District (south eastern corner of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) will usually know Hindko and many Hindkowals from the same region will also be conversant in Pashto.

So many regional languages! Does this mean that everybody in Pakistan is at least bilingual?

In a way it does, but one has to consider different degrees of fluency. Learning to speak a new language is normally motivated by practical considerations. Therefore, Pakistani men who work outside the house are more likely to master the regional lingua franca than women who are expected to stay at home. Or a bazaar trader might speak several languages on a level allowing him to conduct business with his customers, but might not be able to use these idioms in any other situation. Especially for speakers of small minority languages (i.e. languages other than Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi and Balochi) multilingualism is strongly linked to domain.

For example: Mother tongue speakers of the already mentioned Domaakí, men and women alike, are normally also fluent in Burushaski and/or Shina, the idioms of their host communities. Besides this, all Dóoma men and some Dóoma women speak (and even write, if they have attained school) Urdu, which is the area´s main lingua franca. This means that Domaakí is normally used at home, Burushaski/Shina in the village and Urdu with strangers and for written communication.

The quoted example demonstrates that for representatives of minority language groups (approximately 5 % of Pakistan´s population) it is nothing special to be conversant in three-four languages. Most other individuals in Pakistan will know at least two.

See Matthias Weinreich’s book: Pashtun Migrants in the Northern Areas of Pakistan


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Some thoughts on bilingualism

Posted by François Grosjean on April 3, 2011

By François Grosjean, psycholinguist, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.


Photo : Daquella manera (cc)

Photo : Daquella manera (cc)


Defining bilingualism

Although some researchers might define bilinguals as those who have perfect fluency in two (or more) languages, most people believe this definition is not realistic.

Bilinguals have different levels of fluency in their languages, if only because they use them with different people and in different domains of life – at work, at home, with friends, and so on. In addition, their knowledge of a language may only be oral, and not both oral and written.

Researchers have therefore proposed more realistic definitions of bilingualism, such as the ability to produce meaningful utterances in two (or more) languages, the mastery of at least one linguistic competence in another language (reading, writing, speaking, listening), or the alternate use of different languages. In my own work, I have used the following definition: the use of two or more languages or dialects in everyday life.

To understand a bilingual’s language configuration, it is worth taking an analogy. No one in track and field would ever think of comparing a 110 m hurdler to a high jumper (for the height reached) or a sprinter (for the speed attained). And yet the former combines some of the skills of the latter two, in part at least, to produce a complete athlete in his or her own right. The three athletes can only be compared on such grounds as national or international rankings, records broken, and so on.

The analogy helps us understand the difference between bilinguals and monolinguals. Bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one person, but linguistic wholes, with language abilities of their own, and who must be studied as such. If we have to compare bilinguals and monolinguals, then we should do so at the level of communicative competence, once bilinguals have attained a stable configuration in their two or more languages. Examining the bilingual’s languages one by one is simply not adequate.

Bilingualism as a natural phenomenon

Bilingualism occurs in all the countries of the world, in all classes of society, in all age groups. It has been estimated that half of the world’s population, if not more, uses two or more languages on a regular basis.

Bilingualism is caused by a number of factors such as political, economic or religious migration, the political federation of linguistic regions, education, etc.

It is worth noting that there is no direct correlation between official bilingualism and the extent of individual bilingualism: some countries are officially bilingual or multilingual but have very few bilinguals (Canada, Belgium, for example) whereas other countries are officially monolingual (Tanzania, Kenya, etc.) but have large bi- or multilingual populations.

Those who view bi- or multingualism as an exception usually come from rather large countries in the Western Hemisphere where there is a majority of monolinguals. Bilingualism is in fact a common phenomenon that is due to the fact that languages are in contact and people need to communicate with those around them in different languages. One only needs to travel in Africa or Asia to realize how widespread bilingualism is in the world.

Advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism

In monolingual societies, bilingualism is seen as a paradox – for some it is perceived as having advantages while others see the disadvantages.

Reported advantages include the enriched cognitive development of children, greater creativity, more open-mindedness, greater tolerance, and so on. Among reported disadvantages, we hear that children are slowed down in their cognitive and academic development, that some are marginalized, that some even are “semilingual” (whatever that means!) and so on.

The reality is that these advantages and disadvantages often have little to do with bilingualism itself, that is the regular use of two or more languages. They are due to psychosocial factors such as social class, number of years of schooling, belonging to a linguistic or cultural minority and so on. These account for the so-called advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism, not the fact of being bi- or multilingual.

Reference: Grosjean, F. (2004). Le bilinguisme et le biculturalisme: quelques notions de base. In C.  Billard, M. Touzin and P. Gillet (Eds.). Troubles spécifiques des apprentissages: l’état des connaissances. Paris: Signes Editions.

Website: http://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/index.html


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