A Guide to Language Strategies for First Nations Communities
by Mark Fettes

Assembly of First Nations
Language and Literacy Secretariat
December 1992

Table of Contents

  • 1. Mobilization
    Valuing the Language
    Believing in a Program
    Sweat and Tears

  • 2. Defining Goals
    Data Collection
    Needs Assessment
    Goal Definition
    Full Bilingualism
    Reduced Bilingualism
    Cultural Awareness
  • 5. Teaching Issues
    Bilingual Education: Risks and Benefits
    Bilingual Education: The Conditions for Success
    Non-Bilingual Language Programs
    Teaching Methods



This paper is intended to serve as a guide for those First Nations people who want to act to preserve, revive or strengthen their language. There are many reasons why such efforts are important and urgently needed. These have been presented, often with great eloquence, in other First Nations publications, and will not be repeated here. The political context is similarly mentioned only in passing, although it is of crucial importance. The teaching and use of Aboriginal languages cannot be divorced from the wider issues of First Nations self-government, including control over education and community life. Indeed, throughout this paper can be found a recurrent emphasis on the need for community control of language programs. Such control is only possible under a working system of self-government which receives adequate recognition and support at both the provincial and federal levels. This paper assumes that progress towards such a system can be and is being made.

What the following pages seek to make clear, however, is that community control is in itself no guarantee of success in the field of language revival and retention. As the prominent sociolinguist Joshua Fisherman notes: "Most efforts to reverse language shift are only indifferently successful, at best, and outright failures or even contraindicated [i.e. medically inadvisable] and harmful undertakings, at worst." [1991, p.1] A language can receive state support (as in Ireland), be spoken by hundreds of thousands of people in a small area (as in Brittany or Friesland), be included in the higher education system (as in the Sami region of northern Scandinavia), and yet dwindle and disappear. This is why the language issue deserves special attention, even though its place in the wider whole must not be overlooked. As has been made abundantly clear by recent studies of Canada's Aboriginal languages (see Shkilnyk, 1985, and footnote 1), the situation is critical. Only three languages are considered to be reasonably assured. Of survival; at least two-thirds of First Nation communities are experiencing the gradual or rapid loss of their language. What is more, even the remaining third cannot assume that they are safe. In the case of the Navajo in the southwest United States, Fisherman attributes the current alarming rate of language loss to "generations of passive dependence oil such quickly disappearing factors as isolation or distance from anglo influences as the prime protectors of the Navajo way of life". If steps are not taken now to strengthen and entrench the languages of northern Canadian communities, they too could find themselves threatened by increased exposure to English through satellite broadcasts and other modern tools of communication.
There is thus no First Nations community which can afford to ignore the issues discussed here. As Bauman's classic paper [1980] recommends:

In all of the above situations, a language strategy begins with the mobilization of the community itself, the topic of the first section of this paper. Once a certain level of support has been reached, the next step is to research community needs and resources and to identify common goals (section 2). At this stage must also be considered the extent to which the community controls its own destiny, particularly in the field of education, and the role which Aboriginal language literacy will play in the language program (section 3). With these major goals and principles in mind, programs must be developed to ensure progress in all parts of the community, and the family placed at the center of any strategy aiming at language retention or revival (section 4). Since the school will almost certainly be involved in some role, some of the main teaching issues are considered in section 5. Finally, the support that may be available from language professionals and modern technologies is reviewed (section 6).
This paper gives an admittedly brief overview of many complex topics. Language planners should seriously consider investigating these further through the annotated reading list provided, and through discussions, conferences and training workshops. The goal, as always, is to enable First Nations to assert and ensure full ownership of their linguistic and cultural heritage.

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