Archive | June, 2012

Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide

25 Jun

Hallett, D., Chandler, M. J., & Lalonde, C. E. (2007). Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide. Cognitive Development, 22(3), 392–399.

This blog post takes its impetus from Canadian bilingualism, as discussed in the cover story of this weekend’s edition of the Globe and Mail, ‘Is Bilingualism Still Relevant in Canada?’. The post progresses to recent research by Hallett, Chandler and Lalonde, which examined the relationship between youth suicide rates and bilingualism in Aboriginal communities in Canada (the connection between the Globe’s article and Hallett et al.’s research will become clear as you continue to read).

According to the Globe and Mail’s cover story, many Canadians currently question whether the Official Languages Act, which established both French and English as official languages in 1969, should be reinterpreted to embrace not only French and English, but also many of the other immigrant languages in Canada. Indeed, with “more than five million Canadians speaking a mother tongue other than English or French as of 2006” (p. A10), and a total population of just under 33 million, the call for increased support in the instruction of immigrant languages is potentially highly valid in multilingual Canada. Furthermore, as has been discussed in some of my previous blogs, if bilingualism as such, has cognitive advantages, there is no need for the language combination of bilinguals in Canada to be restricted to French and English, unless the advantages of learning additional languages go beyond cognitive benefits.

Indeed, top reasons why readers of the Globe and Mail want to be bilingual are that they 1. value Canada’s history and heritage (identity reasons); 2. believe it’s intellectually enriching (cognitive reasons); 3. want to broaden their employment horizons (financial reasons); and 4. want to be global citizens (potentially both identity and financial reasons). Certainly, only the first reason (and perhaps the third if limiting oneself to Canadian borders) would constrain itself to a French-English combination. Therefore, to answer the Globe’s title question, yes, bilingualism is still relevant in Canada, just not solely in the form of French-English bilingualism, as Canadians have generally interpreted bilingualism until now.

However, and this is why I criticise the quality of the Globe’s cover story, the learning of Aboriginal languages is consistently avoided as a viable alternative in constructing Canada’s reinterpretation of bilingualism. Not once is even one of the over 60 recognised Aboriginal languages of Canada mentioned in the two page spread. This, in my view, is all the more disappointing if the outstanding research by Hallett et al. is brought into the discussion.

Very briefly, Hallett et al.’s study showed that youth suicide rates in Aboriginal communities “effectively dropped to zero in those few communities in which at least half the band members reported a conversational knowledge of their own ‘Native’ language” (p.  392). Hallett et al.’s writing is so poignant that it is difficult to summarise for the purpose of this blog, especially considering the tragic nature of the exceedingly high suicide rates in aboriginal youth populations in Canada (compare over 95 suicides per 100000 in some of the Aboriginal communities with low rates of Aboriginal language acquisition which Hallett et al. looked at versus the national youth suicide average amongst 15-19 year olds of 11.5 per 100000 in 1996). As Hallett et al. discuss, according to the 2001 Canadian Census, overall, only 15% of the country’s Aboriginal children learn an indigenous mother tongue […]. Given such odds, and without special diligence, no more than two or three of Canada’s still existing indigenous languages are expected to survive beyond one or two more generations” (p. 394). In comparison to immigrant communities, the “perceived threats of indigenous language loss are often seen as even more real and more pressing. For such [Aboriginal] parents there is no ‘homeland’ where whole nation states continue to converse in their language of origin, and so no potential source of ‘new speakers’” (p. 393).

For Canadian Aboriginal communities, when their languages die, so too, one could interpret, do their cultures. Given Hallett et al.’s research, at the very least the instruction of Aboriginal languages should be discussed wholeheartedly in Canadian media, e.g. in the Globe and Mail, and increased support for the instruction of Aboriginal languages should commence as a matter of urgency. This, I believe, makes bilingualism highly relevant in Canada.

Esther de Leeuw

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