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The tragedy of dying languages

Boa Sr.’s story

Nobody knew Boa Sr.’s real age. Born around 1925, she was approximately 85 when she passed away in January 2010.

Boa hailed from the remote Indian Andaman and Nicobar Islands, located at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, about 164km from mainland India. She was a survivor. The oldest of the Great Andamanese—once thought to number 5,000 but now less than 50—Boa lived through a terrible disease epidemic brought by the British when they colonized the islands. She even escaped the tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake by climbing a tree. What made Boa truly remarkable though was that, for 30 to 40 years, she was the last remaining speaker of the Bo language. When she passed away, her language did too. A language that was thought to have existed for as long as 65,000 years from one of the oldest human cultures on the planet was now extinct—lost forever to the annals of history. (1) (2)

The extinction of the Bo language is a tragic and cautionary tale. Of the approximately 7,097 languages spoken today, a third are now officially endangered, often with less than 1,000 speakers remaining. (3)

Language and culture are indivisible: One cannot exist without the other. Language is a way of expressing our thought processes and sense of cultural identity. It should come as no surprise then that the Scots language—spoken in some parts of lowland Scotland and Northern Ireland—has an incredible 421 words for snow! (4)

A Canadian perspective

Here in Canada, according to UNESCO’s endangered languages criteria, more than two-thirds of the 70 Indigenous languages are endangered, with the rest being classed as vulnerable. (5)

In 2015, the federal Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission—whose mandate was to gather the written and oral history of Indigenous residential schools and to work toward reconciliation between former students and the rest of Canada—offered some specific calls to action pertaining to language and culture:

“…the federal government to acknowledge that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights;

…the federal government to enact an Aboriginal Languages Act…;

…the federal government to appoint, in consultation with Aboriginal groups, an Aboriginal Languages Commissioner;

…post-secondary institutions to create university and college degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages.” (6)

Towards a solution?

The federal government is currently working on legislation to recognize Indigenous languages as a constitutional right. If the law passes, the government would have a financial responsibility to keep all Indigenous languages from dying out. As Minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly said, there’s not a moment to waste:

“We’re dealing with the impact of colonialism in our country. There’s such an urgent need to act. Right now, for some languages … we’re at the last generation of people speaking the languages. This legislation will be a huge step toward reconciliation.” (7)

In Canada’s western British Columbia province all 34 Indigenous languages are critically endangered. The First Peoples’ Cultural Council—a First Nations-run crown corporation with a mandate to support Indigenous languages, arts and culture—thinks that they should all be recognized as official languages. Such a move is not without precedent. In 2014, Alaska’s state legislature did just that—making Native languages on par with English. Although BC’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser said his government will not go down this route, they’ve stated an intent to commit $50 million to Indigenous languages over the next three years. (8)

Language nests

Binesi Boulanger, a summer child care research and engagement co-ordinator at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba and the Child Care Coalition of Manitoba, opines that “language nests” are an effective response to aging populations of Indigenous language speakers.

A language nest is a child-care program whereby children are extensively exposed to an Indigenous language to create a new generation of speakers to help keep the language alive. Boulanger cites various successful examples such as a child care program in New Zealand to teach the Maori language or a Punana Leo language program in Hawaii. (9)

Signs of hope

According to the 2016 Statistics Canada census, the number of people in Canada who could speak an Indigenous language has increased by 3.1%, compared to 2006. Also, the number of people who reported being able to speak an Indigenous language was higher than those who had an Indigenous mother tongue. This suggests an uptake in the number of younger people learning Indigenous languages later in life. (5)

When a language dies, so do the hopes, aspirations, stories, songs and knowledge of an entire generation—often accumulated over thousands of years. Language serves as an anchor to one’s cultural identify. This linguistic chain, however tenuous, must be carefully nurtured, so that it can be around for another thousand years.


(1) Extinct: Andaman tribe’s extermination complete as last member dies: Survival International. Accessed October 26, 2018 <>

(2) Last speaker of ancient language of Bo dies in India: BBC News. Accessed October 26, 2018 <>

(3) How many languages are there in the world: Ethnologue. Accessed October 26, 2018 <>

(4) Which language has the most words for snow: K International. Accessed October 26, 2018 <>

(5) Indigenous languages are in danger of becoming extinct: Huffington Post. Accessed October 26, 2018 <>

(6) Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action: Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Accessed October 26, 2018


(7) Canada to make first languages constitutional right: Language Magazine. Accessed October 26, 2018 <>

(8) B.C. should give its 34 Indigenous languages official status, advocates say: CBC News. Accessed October 26, 2018 <>

(9) Indigenous languages must be nurtured in early childhood education settings: CBC News. Accessed October 26, 2018 <>



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