Language loss is the decline of a language’s use among its speakers. Languages that have suffered language loss have fewer people who are able to speak the language than they once did.

Languages at the risk of language loss are called “endangered languages.”

Causes of language endangerment are often related to social, political and cultural factors.

Assimilation: A language spoken by a large group of people (a majority language) can have a powerful effect on a language spoken by a smaller group of people (a minority language). People may feel pressured to speak a majority language because it is widely used at their workplace, school, or in public life. In turn, minority language speakers might choose to  prioritize teaching their children the majority language.

In Canada, English is the majority language and has a strong influence over other languages. Because of this influence, heritage languages are sometimes lost between generations of immigrants.

Social Dislocation: Canadians who speak minority languages may need move away from their families to urban centres in order to attend university or college, pursue a career, get married, or for other reasons. As more people move to large towns and cities, minority language communities are drained of fluent speakers. Meanwhile, relocated speakers are faced with the challenge of keeping their language alive while surrounded by a majority language.

Linguicide: Sometimes, deliberate efforts are made to assimilate or completely erase a minority language. People may be shamed or punished for speaking their language. They might be forced to only speak a majority language. Trauma from these events can discourage people from using their language or from teaching it to others.

The Canadian government and residential school system attempted to prevent the survival of Indigenous languages. Because of this, many Indigenous languages are affected by language loss.

For many people, language is an important part of their culture, identity and history. When languages are lost, people may no longer be able to communicate as they once did, estranging families and communities. Vital social and emotional ties are damaged. Knowledge is lost because it is no longer able to be expressed. Unique ideas, concepts and perspectives are threatened.

Even though a language may be affected by language loss, it does not mean that it will become extinct. Government support, community programs, and education can make a difference. In Part 5, you can learn about solutions and initiatives that address language loss.