The Status of the Native Languages of British Columbia


Almost all of the native languages of British Columbia are dying; most are seriously endangered. Three languages, Nicola, Pentlatch, and Tsetsaut, are already extinct. Here are estimates of the number of speakers of the languages of British Columbia, in order of increasing number of speakers. Estimates that are recent and considered to be accurate have a coloured background.

For each language three figures are given. The first is the total number of speakers. The second is the number of speakers living in British Columbia. In a few cases these are quite different because a language that is spoken in British Columbia is spoken primarily elsewhere. The third is the number of speakers under the age of 15. In many ways this is the most important number: if a language is not spoken by children, it is on its deathbed no matter how many older people speak it.

Estimates of numbers of speakers of native languages should generally be taken with a grain of salt. Unfortunately, the figures available are generally not very accurate. One reason for this is simply that they are frequently out of date. For example, even now one still sees figures based on the 1980 census. For languages that are in good condition, this does not matter so much. The number of speakers of, say, Italian, has not changed dramatically in 25 years. When a language is dying, however, 25 years can make a large difference. If all the speakers of a language are elderly, even if there are quite a few of them, in 25 years the great majority of them may be gone. For native languages, therefore, older estimates almost always overestimate the current number of speakers.

Another problem is that information on the number of speakers is rarely collected systematically. Few bands have ever undertaken any kind of systematic survey of who speaks what language. The figures reported are usually mere "guesstimates". Both people reporting on other people's language use and people reporting their own are prone to bias. Wishful thinking may give rise to overestimates, while a desire to emphasize the endangerment of the language may produce estimates that are excessively pessimistic. Lack of public use can lead to undercounting. If speakers do not use the language in public settings (such as band meetings or church services), only their friends and family, and often only those of the same age, will know that they know the language. Others may falsely think that they do not.

Different people have different ideas of what counts as speaking a language. When we report that a language has so many speakers, we normally mean that they are fully fluent, and that is how such numbers are usually interpreted. In practice, people use quite a few different definitions of what it means to be said to speak language a language. They may speak haltingly or in limited circumstances. They may understand well but not actually speak it. They may understand a little bit and not speak at all. They may just speak and understand a few words and phrases, such as "hello" and "thank you". Sometimes the bit that they can perform is rather extensive but is still a set piece. In cultures in which longhouse speeches are culturally important, some people learn to give a speech but are otherwise incapable of using the language.

Another problem in counting languages and their speakers is that different people classify languages differently and give them different names. In some cases one person may treat two language varieties as dialects of the same language while another person will distinguish two languages.

The figures given here are for first-language speakers, that is, people who grew up speaking the language. Good second-language speakers are so rare that including them would not change the figures very much, but for some languages there are a few.

LanguageTotalBCBC < 15
Nicola000
Pentlatch000
Tsetsaut000
South Tsimshian110
Tagish220
Klallam400
Squamish15150
Nuxalk20200
Straits20200
Kootenai30200
Ditidat30300
Tahltan35350
Sechelt40400
Haida50350
Sekani50500
Kwak'wala1901900
Halkomelem2002000
Lilloet2002000
Nuuchanulth2002000
Haisla2502500
Shuswap25025040
Beaver3002002
Comox/Sliamon4004000
Kaska4002000
Heiltsuk4504500
Babine-Witsuwit'en5005000
Okanagan5003000
Thompson5005000
Tlingit575200
Nisga'a7007000
CoastTsimshian8007500
Dakelh9009000
Gitksan1000100030
Chilcotin1200120015
Slave30004000
Saulteau1000030
Cree3500010000

Even where the number of speakers seems fairly large, the language is probably still endangered; very few languages are being learned by the current generation of children.

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Updated 2012-08-08