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THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

THE IMPORTANCE OF LANGUAGE

Language is the principal instrument by which culture is transmitted from one generation to another, by which members of a culture communicate meaning and make sense of their shared experience. Because language defines the world and experience in cultural terms, it literally shapes our way of perceiving – our worldview.
Royal Commission on Aboriginal People – Volume 3

When we use our own native language, we go into the thought world of our ancestors, including their language and thought systems.
Dr. Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley; Proceedings – Strength from Culture Symposium;
Education, Culture, and Employment

Within current language theory, there is a belief that "language is culture" – that language embodies our own unique cultural understanding of the world and also guides how we interact with the world. Many Aboriginal people feel strongly that their historical and cultural integrity as First Nations people is rooted within their respective languages.

From this perspective, maintaining the use of a traditional language is essential to one's cultural identity and the key to understanding and appreciating the history, knowledge, beliefs, and values of one's ancestors. Importantly, maintaining the language also allows one to bring forward and use traditional knowledge, beliefs, and values in interpreting and responding to the world today. In this sense, Aboriginal languages are not a relic of the past, but a dynamic tool people can use to interact in a meaningful and authoritative way with the rest of society.

In fact, viewing Aboriginal languages as "living" languages that have inherent use and value in modern society is critical to their preservation. Establishing and promoting a meaningful context for continued usage of traditional languages, in a society increasingly dominated by English, is a fundamental challenge for Aboriginal people.

Within current literature relating to Aboriginal languages, the loss of Aboriginal languages in Canada is acknowledged as being far more serious than the loss of any other of the many languages used and spoken in this country. All other languages are immigrant languages and therefore have a "homeland" in another part of the world. English, French, Chinese, and Greek, for example, are all spoken in other parts of the world. If these languages are "lost" in Canada, they are not lost to the world.

However, for most, if not all of the Canadian Aboriginal languages, this is their homeland. If the languages are lost here, they are lost forever to the world. The enormity of this loss is still not fully understood or acknowledged. In fact, the rapid loss of Aboriginal languages that is occurring today may well constitute the final assault on Aboriginal people in a long history of colonization.

Fortunately, in the Northwest Territories, the value and importance of Aboriginal languages is recognized through legislation. The Northwest Territories has the most advanced and supportive legislation and policies in Canada relating to the maintenance, promotion, and revitalization of Aboriginal languages.

With time, resources, and effort it is possible in the Northwest Territories to reestablish Aboriginal languages as working languages in many aspects of people lives. Doing this, however, is only partially dependent on legislation and policy; it is primarily dependent on the value each language community, each culture, places on its own language.

The relative value of a language will ultimately be determined by the people who inherit its usage – who choose to continue speaking it rather than gradually abandoning it in favor of another, more dominant, language.


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