Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

7.9: Prestige and Politics

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    Prestige and Politics, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    I made it clear at the beginning that there are certain dialects that are given more prestige than others. When I say they're given more prestige, it is not by linguists; we don't give prestige to anyone. However, in a society, a certain dialect or manner of speaking will get more prestige than others and frequently, it has to do with power and therefore politics so let's briefly talk about that.

    In every single culture, there is considered a prestige dialect. What does that mean? The prestige dialect is the one that everybody emulates frequently, although not always; it is the dialect of those who are generally in power—not just one person, but several people. That being said, I have to reiterate the fact that we as linguists do not mark something as supposed to be prestigious. We observe. The other thing we observe is that frequently non-prestige dialects are considered substandard—not just nonstandard but substandard—and then many times, even being banned. That can be true not just of dialects, but of minority languages that are used in that society.

    Let me give you some examples of languages and dialects that have been banned. This has to do with prestige and power.

    If you know anything about the history of Spain, especially in the modern times, in the in the 30s there was the Spanish Civil War, and Francisco Franco came into power. He banned all other dialects of Spanish outside of Castilian Spanish, because the capital Madrid is in Cast, therefore, that is, the mainstream and of story, and so, for the 42 years that he was empower if you spoke anything other than Castilian Spanish, you had problems. This attitude was doubled down on the other languages that were spoken in Spain; Basque, Catalán, Gallego, Valenciano, these were all banned. When I say banned, I mean you could not speak them or read them or write them in public. Music, radio, TV, schools, print media, none of it.

    That is a pretty extreme example; by no means is it unique. When we're talking about modern times, so think the Renaissance forward, there have been multiple cases of a group put into power that banned all other dialects and languages. In France, part of the French Revolution in the 1780s and 90s had to do with the marketing of Parisian French as the standard, as the prestige dialect, as the language of the people and of the language of the revolution. As a result, all other dialects, as well as all other languages, spoken in France were not allowed in schools, exactly because they were just not prestigious enough. That continues to this day. You have Basque, Breton, Occitan, Provençal, Gascon, all of them—if they have not already died out, they are severely threatened. The Basque community is probably the strongest of that group, mostly because of the Basques who are in Spain helping the ones in France. Breton is still around, although very much endangered. Provençal on its very last legs; there probably are only literally a handful of native speakers left. Gascon and Occitan have already disappeared.

    The Celtic languages in general, but especially in the United Kingdom and the British Isles, including when Britain also included Ireland as part of its realm. The Celtic languages were all suppressed by the government and by the churches, first the Catholic Church and then the Anglican Church. It continued all the way through the early-mid part of the 20th century; it's really only since about the 1970s that there has been a concerted effort to revitalize the Celtic languages of the British Isles. The revitalization movement started in Ireland, once it gained its independence in the 1910s. It was able to start establishing Irish Gaelic as an official language to start building up the speakership, and it has gotten to the point that most folks, depending on where you grow up in Ireland, are exposed to Irish Gaelic. All are taught Irish Gaelic throughout their schooling years.

    Certainly, if we talked about this topic in modern times, we do need to bring up the USSR or Soviet Russia. Although the seeds of this really start before the revolution, at the start of the Russian Empire; being that Moscow was the capital, Muscovites were given prestige for their dialect. Any other dialect of Russian was not held in such esteem, and, of course, the same was true for any of the non-Russian languages spoken in the Empire. This is particularly true of any of the non-Indo-European languages. We still see this battle in the Ukraine, with respect to Ukrainian versus Russian, and that Ukrainian is definitely coming back strong. We also see the other side in Belarus, as Belorussian is very endangered, all thanks to the close ties that the current government regimes have had with Russia. As you can see, it also with Lithuanian, Georgian, Armenian, Kazakh, Uzbek, and so many other languages in what first was part of the Russian Empire and then later Soviet Russia.

    Why it's important to bring this up is the fact that when we talk about language policies, one of two things happens: either the language that is being affected—the minority languages, at were—is being tamped down and goes underground. This mostly happens with languages, but it can happen with dialects; African American English is actually a great example of this. When these folks were enslaved, they were pushed to not speak these dialects but then, as there was more and more freedom to do so, more and more folks spoke African American Vernacular English in their daily lives. It can also lead to revitalization efforts down the road. For example, once Franco passed away in 1978, one of the first things that happened was a revitalization, especially of Basque and Catalán. This was not surprising, because the Basque Country and Cataluña are the two richest provinces in all of Spain, the two biggest ports and the two biggest longstanding cultural areas. Gallego and Valenciano have had more of a struggle. Gallego is starting to get some traction back and certainly connections with Portuguese help, but it hasn't come along the same way that Catalán and Basque. Valenciano is even more endangered, especially given that, if you think about where Valencia is in Spain, it is halfway between Castile on the one hand and Cataluña on the other. In many ways, Valenciano is almost a in-between language that encapsulates aspects of both Castilian Spanish and Catalán. It's not having as much success as either of those languages in it's going forward.

    In the case of the Celtic languages, we see a very strong showing with respect to Welsh, we see a pretty strong showing with respect to Irish Gaelic, although there are questions about sustainability. However, we see less sustainability with Scotts Gaelic, although there may be a reinvigoration again. Manx completely disappeared and then completely came back, all because of the will of the people. Breton is very much endangered, and Cornish is completely gone, although you still see vestiges of it now and then, if you go to Cornwall. Those are just the languages; when we talk about dialects, it's the same route as well.

    All languages evolve, of course, but at some point, something's going to happen and all languages at some point will have a death. It's just inevitable, but how that happens depends. For example, most of the time it just gradually falls out of use, with generation after generation after generation opting for something else; this is gradual language death. Sometimes that something else is forced upon them because of a change in government or society, but often it's also just due to historical evolution; think of Latin, which had a fairly gradual death. If you think of Classical Latin, that actually was not being spoken by most folks when Augustus Caesar came into power. The upper elite might have been using Classical Latin, but certainly not the common folk; they were using Vulgar Latin, and that evolved into the modern Romance languages. Sometimes you do have a sudden language death, where you have a total extinction of the population all at once; think of a genocide, in particular. Radical language death happens due to political influence, usually within one to two generations. It's maybe not quite as sudden as the first one, but definitely is within a couple generations. We also have bottom to top language deaths, when the language just falls out of use, but it's still being used on some levels; this is actually the case of Latin, as it's a combination of three and four. It just started gradually not being used, and then it comes back a little bit with respect to Medieval Latin and Clergy Latin, which is the Latin that was used in the monasteries all throughout England and mainland Europe right through to the Renaissance.

    It is important to also realize that when we're talking about how languages can become extinct, a lot of it just has to do with circumstances. A great example of this right now is Covid-19, and the fact that we have seen devastating losses in so many speech communities where the language may have already been on the way out, if not highly endangered. We're seeing it throughout parts of Asia and the Pacific Islands; we're seeing it throughout Australia; we're seeing it through the Americas as well with indigenous populations; and, to a lesser extent, we're also seeing it in Africa. It's important to understand that when we have language extinction, yes, there is a sadness to it. However, as a linguist, it's also a natural part of evolution; this is what happens. As long as we try to document what happens and what how that language has been spoken for some time, we at least do what we can.

    It is a reminder, by the way, that just because a language becomes extinct, that does not mean that we can't revitalize it. The Celtic languages are really great example of this; another one is Hebrew. The Modern Hebrew that is spoken today has really only been in existence for about 150 years. Classical Hebrew died out many centuries ago. It was revitalized because a group of people wanted to do it, and they did so in a systematic way: taking Classical Hebrew and adding modern aspects, including aspects of Modern Arabic and Amharic, two closely related or sibling Semitic languages. Manx is another example; essentially, it was extinct for at least three generations, but then the people brought it back with a concerted effort.

    No matter what you do language changes. It evolves, period, end of story. Every time a child is born and they acquire at least one, if not more than one language, there are changes that happened. There are changes genetically, sociologically and linguistically that just happen. When you have a change in population and/or speech community—mass migration, massive illness that takes out a very large group of people—we also have change with respect to analogy. I'll explain a little more of that in historical linguistics; suffice it to say that when we talk about analogy, we're talking about weeding out irregularities. We also just see other changes in society; take Latin for an example. In Classical Latin, you have very distinct, very crisp inflections—almost always suffixes—that are full of consonants. By the time we get to Vulgar Latin and Late Latin—Vulgar Latin is the Latin of the people, Late Latin starts with the century of the Roman Empire, roughly the 5th century CE—we start seeing constant deletion, especially at the word final position. However, if that consonant is part of how you distinguish one inflection from another, that's going to have a lot of repercussions, and one of them is the loss of case system—no more fancy inflection for the subject versus the object. You have more fixed word order, and this all happens at the same time, so it becomes a chicken in the egg paradox. You can't really tell when one change starts and then the other change is affected next; they all seem to happen all at the same time. It reminds me of watching metal, especially like gold or silver, in a crucible. It goes from a solid state to a liquid state lickety-split and all at once. A lot of these changes seem to happen that same way, or at least they start that way, and then they continue to evolve as speakers continue to use the language.

    Linguistic Law Enforcement

    In many cultures there’s a general sense that it’s rude to criticize or call attention to various kinds of social difference. In Canada, most kids learn in school that it’s impolite to stare at a person who has a visible disability, to make jokes about fat bodies, or to comment on someone’s gender-nonconforming appearance. Or at least, we learn not to express these opinions in public.

    In contrast, it’s not only socially acceptable but even expected and encouraged to criticize language use that deviates from the privileged standard, calling it improper, ungrammatical, or worse. In this unit we’ll look at some of the domains where prescriptive standards of grammar get wielded like law enforcement, to keep social order.

    Policing Voices

    We saw in the previous unit that people who object to using they/them pronouns for non-binary people often phrase their objections not in terms of gender norms but terms of grammar, insisting that they can’t possibly be singular because that would be ungrammatical! Bradley’s (2019) work has shown that people with prescriptive views of grammar also tend to have conservative views about the gender binary — in other words, it’s not just about grammar.

    Another way that people police language use to enforce gender norms is by criticizing women’s voices. When I was young, the older generation complained about uptalk? When your pitch rises? At the end of a sentence? Beginning sometime in the 2010s, the moral panic started to center on vocal fry. Chapter 3 will give us a chance to explore more about how humans make speech sounds in the vocal tract. For now, you should know that vocal fry is a way of producing speech with very low frequency vibrations of the vocal folds, so that it sounds creaky. Creak is actually one of the technical linguistic terms for this voice quality, and creak is a systematic part of the phonetics, phonology, and prosody of many spoken languages around the world (Davidson 2020).

    In addition to the jobs the vocal fry does in the grammar, it also provides social cues that listeners interpret. Davidson’s (2020) review article mentions studies that found that speakers who use vocal fry are perceived as more bored, more relaxed, less intelligent and less confident, among other attributes. But even though men and women speaking English are about equally likely to creak, for some reason listeners, or at least listeners older than 40, find it wildly more irritating when women do it. Ira Glass, host of the podcast This American Life and frequent vocal fryer himself, reports that he’s received dozens of emails complaining about his female colleagues’ vocal fry, “some of the angriest emails we ever get. They call these women’s voices unbearable, excruciating, annoyingly adolescent, beyond annoying,” (Glass, 2015) but no emails complaining about his voice or those of his male colleagues. Confirming Glass’s anecdotal report, Anderson et al.[1] (2014) found that, “The negative perceptions of vocal fry are stronger for female voices relative to male voices” and they recommend that “young American females should avoid using vocal fry speech in order to maximize labor market opportunities.” Does that sound familiar? Just like the résumé study we learned about in the previous unit, this is another instance of job candidates being judged not for their qualifications and experience, but for the social cues being indexed by their voice. It’s not too likely that the pitch of your speaking voice is related to your job performance, so rather than telling job candidates to change their name or change how they use language to conform to the biases of the hiring manager, how about we train hiring committees to overcome these biases?

    Policing Accents

    Besides voice, another part of language use that is subject to linguistic law enforcement is accent. Everybody has an accent, but we tend to notice only the accents that are different from our own. In an earlier unit, we learned about the common belief that a standardized variety is the best or most correct way of using language. That logic extends to accents as well: a non-standard accent is often stigmatized. The accent itself is neither bad nor good, but the stigma means that people have negative attitudes and expectations about it. Where English is the majority language, people who learned English later in life often encounter that stigma. And there are also L1 varieties whose speakers experience stigma, such as Black English, the varieties spoken in the southeastern United States, and Newfoundland English.

    Chapters 11 and 12 deal with how children and adults learn language in much more detail. Here, we’ll use the term first language or L1 to refer to the language(s) that you learned from birth from the people around you, and L2 for any language you learned after you already had an L1, even if it’s actually your third or fourth language.

    Why do L2 users have different accents from L1 users? The short answer is that, when you learn an L2, your mental grammar for that L2 is influenced by the experience you have in your L1. (The longer answer comes in a later chapter!) So your accent in your L2 is shaped by the phonology of your L1. What this means is that if your L1 is English and you learn Japanese as an L2, your accent in Japanese is likely to be different from that of your classmate whose L1 is Korean.

    For people whose accents are different from the mainstream, there can be many negative consequences. You’re less likely to get a job interview (Oreopoulos, 2011), and your boss might not recognize your skills (Russo et al., 2017). It’s harder to find a landlord who’s willing to rent you an apartment (Purnell et al., 1999; Hogan & Berry, 2011). If you have to go to court, what you say won’t be taken as seriously (Grant, 2019), and the court reporter is likelier to make mistakes in transcribing your testimony (Jones et al., 2019). Kids whose accents aren’t mainstream are disproportionately labelled with learning disabilities and streamed out of academic classrooms into special ed (Adjei, 2018; Kooc & Kiru, 2018). And probably Alexa, Siri, and Google won’t understand your requests (Koenecke et al., 2020)!

    Why do these things happen? Well, in the case of Alexa, it’s because the training data doesn’t include enough variation in dialects and accents. But the rest of these situations arise from people’s expectations, and their expectations come from their experiences and their attitudes. Two linguists at the University of British Columbia conducted a matched-guise study with UBC students as listeners (Babel & Russell, 2015). They recorded the voices of several people who had grown up in Canada and had English as their L1. When they played these recordings to the listeners, they presented them either as audio-only, with a picture of the face of a white Canadian person, or with a picture of a Chinese Canadian person. For any given voice, the listeners rated the talker as having a stronger accent when they saw a Chinese Canadian face than when they saw a white Canadian face, and they were also less accurate at writing down the sentences the talker said. Apparently the faces influenced how well the listeners understood the talkers.

    The researchers interpret their results as a mismatch of expectations. In Richmond, BC, where they conducted their study, more than 40% of the population speaks either Cantonese or Mandarin. If you live in Richmond, you have a greater chance of encountering L1 Chinese speakers in your daily life than L1 English speakers. So when you see a face that appears Chinese, you have an expectation, based on your daily experience, that that person’s English is going to be Chinese-accented. If the person’s accent turns out to be that of an L1 English speaker, the mismatch with your expectations makes it harder to understand what they say.

    So we’ve seen that people’s expectations, their experiences and their attitudes can lead to stigma for language users with accents that are different from the mainstream. And that stigma can have serious, real-life consequences on people’s employment and housing and education. In addition to the consequences for the person producing an unfamiliar accent, there can also be consequences for the person trying to understand an unfamiliar accent. Those consequences can be pretty serious if you’re finding it difficult to understand the person giving you medical advice (Lambert et al., 2010), or teaching you differential equations (Ramjattan, 2020; Rubin, 1992). Accent “neutralization” is big business and L2 English speakers experience a lot of pressure to “reduce” their accents (Aneesh, 2015). As we’ll see in more detail in Chapter 12, it’s hard to change your accent after childhood, because your L2 grammar is shaped by your L1 experience. And your accent is part of who you are — it’s part of your story and your community. As linguists, let’s resist the narrative that pressures everyone to conform to some arbitrary standard accent. Luckily enough, psycholinguistic research shows us that it’s much easier to change your comprehension of unfamiliar accents than it is to change your L2 production.

    Just as our experience and our expectations can lead to stigma, our experience also influences our perception. The more experience we have paying attention to someone, the better we understand them: this is called perceptual adaptation. Perceptual adaptation was first shown for a single talker: the longer people listened to an unfamiliar talker, the more they understood of what the talker said (Nygaard, 1994). Extensions of that research have also shown that experience listening to several speakers with a particular accent makes it easier to understand a new speaker with that same accent (Bradlow & Bent, 2008). And it turns out that listening to a variety of unfamiliar accents then makes it easier to understand a new talker with a completely different accent (Baese-Berk et al., 2013). In short, the more experience we have paying attention to someone, the more familiarity we have with the way they produce language, and the more familiarity we have, the better we’ll understand what they’re saying.

    So if you want to better understand someone whose accent is different from yours, the best way to accomplish that is to pay attention to them for longer. Likewise, if someone thinks your accent is hard to understand, you can just tell them to pay attention!

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    Adjei, P. B. (2018). The (em)bodiment of blackness in a visceral anti-black racism and ableism context. Race Ethnicity and Education, 21(3), 275–287.

    Anderson, R. C., Klofstad, C. A., Mayew, W. J., & Venkatachalam, M. (2014). Vocal Fry May Undermine the Success of Young Women in the Labor Market. PLOS ONE, 9(5), e97506.

    Aneesh, A. (2015). Neutral accent: How language, labor, and life become global. Duke University Press.

    Babel, M., & Russell, J. (2015). Expectations and speech intelligibility. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 137(April), 2823–2833.

    Baese-Berk, M. M., Bradlow, A. R., & Wright, B. A. (2013). Accent-independent adaptation to foreign accented speech. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 133(3), EL174–EL180.

    Bradley, E. D. (2019). Personality, prescriptivism, and pronouns. English Today, 1–12.

    Bradlow, A. R., & Bent, T. (2008). Perceptual adaptation to non-native speech. Cognition, 106(2), 707–729.

    Cooc, N., & Kiru, E. W. (2018). Disproportionality in Special Education: A Synthesis of International Research and Trends. The Journal of Special Education, 52(3), 163–173.

    Davidson, L. (2020). The versatility of creaky phonation: Segmental, prosodic, and sociolinguistic uses in the world’s languages. WIREs Cognitive Science, e1547.

    Gillon, C., & Figueroa, M. (Hosts.) (2017). Uppity Women [Audio Podcast Episode]. In The Vocal Fries.

    Glass, I. (Host). (2015). Freedom Fries | If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS [Audio podcast episode.] In This American Life. WBEZ Chicago.

    Kayaalp, D. (2016a). Living with an accent: A sociological analysis of linguistic strategies of immigrant youth in Canada. Journal of Youth Studies, 19(2), 133–148.

    Koenecke, A., Nam, A., Lake, E., Nudell, J., Quartey, M., Mengesha, Z., Toups, C., Rickford, J. R., Jurafsky, D., & Goel, S. (2020). Racial disparities in automated speech recognition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(14), 7684–7689.

    Lambert, B. L., Dickey, L. W., Fisher, W. M., Gibbons, R. D., Lin, S.-J., Luce, P. A., McLennan, C. T., Senders, J. W., & Yu, C. T. (2010). Listen carefully: The risk of error in spoken medication orders. Social Science & Medicine, 70(10), 1599–1608.

    Nygaard, L. C., Sommers, M. S., & Pisoni, D. B. (1994). Speech Perception as a Talker-Contingent Process. Psychological Science, 5(1), 42–46.

    Oreopoulos, P. (2011). Why Do Skilled Immigrants Struggle in the Labor Market? A Field Experiment with Thirteen Thousand Resumes. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 3(4), 148–171.

    Purnell, T., Idsardi, W., & Baugh, J. (1999). Perceptual and Phonetic Experiments on American English Dialect Identification. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 18(1), 10–30.

    Ramjattan, V. A. (2020). Engineered accents: International teaching assistants and their microaggression learning in engineering departments. Teaching in Higher Education, 1–16.

    Rubin, D. L. (1992). Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants. Research in Higher Education, 33(4), 511–531.

    Russo, M., Islam, G., & Koyuncu, B. (2017). Non-native accents and stigma: How self-fulfilling prophesies can affect career outcomes. Human Resource Management Review, 27(3), 507–520.

    1. No relation to the Anderson of this textbook!

    Legally Enshrined Harms

    In previous sections we saw how people police each other’s language as a means of asserting power. But what about language policies imposed by actual governments in power? Governments and institutions use language to create unity in some cases and division in others. One way that governments wield their power is through language policies, which can be used to erase or reinforce social identities. They can be used to encourage or force people to speak or not speak particular languages, to prove competency in a language, or affect the physical landscape of our communities by regulating the language that appears on signs. Language policies can be implemented for positive or negative motivations, or sometimes they are well-intentioned, but short-sighted.

    Canada, of course, has two official languages, French and English, but as we will see in Chapter 15, there are over 80 languages Indigenous to Canada from 9 different language families! Why should French and English, both imported languages, be the official languages?

    The Official Languages Act was instituted in 1969 by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in order to maintain national unity between English and French Canada, in response to increasing francophone nationalism in the province of Quebec. At the time, the anglophone minority dominated the industrial, commercial, and financial sectors in Quebec. The Official Languages Act also led to Canada’s policy of multiculturalism.

    The Official Languages Act had some positive effects across Canada; it improved education and employment opportunities for francophones outside of Quebec. New Brunswick became officially bilingual. The Supreme Court of Canada overturned a law that had been in place since 1890 that made Manitoba officially monolingual, despite the fact that, when Manitoba joined Confederation in 1870, it had approximately equal numbers of francophones (often Métis) and anglophones. However, the Official Languages Act has a major shortcoming. What about Canada’s Indigenous peoples? It does not offer protection or even recognition of the importance of these languages.

    In Canadian history, language policies have been used as a part of the oppression of Indigenous peoples. Sections 1.4 and 2.4 in this book introduce the harms done to Indigenous people and communities by the residential school policy in Canada, which forced Indigenous children’s attendance at the government and church-run facilities. The Government of Canada policed Indigenous people’s language even prior to the creation of residential schools in the 1880s, with policies pushing toward assimilation and the loss of Indigenous languages and cultures. The government’s goal was the assimilation of Indigenous children, to train them for menial jobs and weaken their claims to their land. Official policy dictated that English and French be the only languages of instruction at residential schools. Schools forbade children from using their home languages, and enforced the ban with cruel punishments. These policies were examples of linguistic imperialism or linguistic colonialism, wherein the suppression of language is part of a more general oppression of Indigenous cultures by settler-colonial powers (see Griffith, 2017). They further constituted attempted linguicide (the killing of a language), because children were prevented from practicing their first languages and associated their use with punishment and feelings of shame. These children also felt isolated from their home cultures as the ability to communicate in their home languages were lost (see e.g., Fontaine, 2017). The harms to people and communities due to the loss of languages at the hands of residential schools are lasting and ongoing. The parent-to-child transmission of language has been broken in a majority of Canada’s Indigenous communities. Some residential school survivors still find it difficult to speak their native tongue because it is associated with trauma from their time at school. New legal policy may however be a positive part of the process of reclamation of Indigenous languages. For example, in a 2017 article, Fontaine calls for legal policy entitling children to education in their ancestral language, beyond the right to education in English and French (see the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982, Section 23). The calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada included calls for the protection of Indigenous languages (see The Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2015), leading to the establishment of the Indigenous Languages Act in 2019. This act provides legal protection to Indigenous languages including funding for reclamation and revitalization.

    The consequences of Canada’s official focus on English-French bilingualism are still evident today. When Mary Simon was appointed Governor General in 2021, she was criticized for her lack of French proficiency, even though she is bilingual in English and Inuktitut. Simon promised to learn French and also related her language experience to educational policy in Canada, stating that “Based on my experience growing up in Quebec, I was denied the chance to learn French during my time in the federal government day schools” (as reported by CTV news, 2021).

    The province of Quebec has its own language laws, with the goal of protecting French from assimilation into the anglophone majority in Canada. Quebec’s language laws limit who is allowed to attend an anglophone school and require the French on signs to come first and to be twice as large as other languages. Unfortunately, though, these laws do not apply only to English, but to all languages, which negatively affects the Indigenous peoples of Quebec. The majority of Cree and Mohawk speakers in Quebec, for example, have English as their second language, and so these laws increase their difficulty in accessing education and other provincial services.

    The Quebec Cree passed their own language act in 2019, the first law passed since they achieved self-governance in 2017. In contrast to Quebec’s laws, however, they are not enforcing compliance for now. Instead, local governments, businesses, and others will need a Cree language plan for increasing the use of Cree in their organizations.


    Behiels, Michael D. and R. Hudon. 2013. Bill 101 (Charte de la langue française). The Canadian Encyclopedia.

    Bell, Susan and Christopher Herodier. Sep 24, 2019. Quebec Cree pass language act as its 1st-ever legislation. CBC News.

    Fontaine, Lorena Sekwan. 2017. Redress for linguicide: Residential schools and assimilation in Canada / Réparations pour linguisicide: Les pensionnats et l’assimilation au Canada. British Journal of Canadian Studies 30(2), 183-204.

    Griffith, Jane. 2017. Of linguicide and resistance: children and English instruction in nineteenth-century Indian boarding schools in Canada. Paedagogica Historica, 53:6, 763-782.

    Haque, Eve and Donna Patrick. 2015. Indigenous languages and the racial hierarchisation of language policy in Canada. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 36(1), 27-41.

    ‘Honoured, humbled and ready’: Mary Simon’s first speech as incoming Governor General. 2021, July 6. CTV News. Retrieved May 30, 2022 from

    Laing, G. and Celine Cooper. 2019. Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. THe Canadian Encyclopedia.

    Powless, Ben. Jun 5, 2021. Critics say Quebec legislation to defend French could harm Indigenous languages. Nation News.

    Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Canada’s Residential Schools: the Legacy : The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 5, Ch. 3, “I lost my talk”: The erosion of language and culture. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

    Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action. Winnipeg:

    Verrette, Michel. 2006. Manitoba Schools Question. The Canadian Encyclopedia.

    Wood, Nancy. 2021. Next governor general’s inability to speak French leaves francophone communities conflicted. CBC News. Retrieved May 30, 2022, from

    7.9: Prestige and Politics is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?