4.2 Trends in the use of Aboriginal languages in NWT ecozones

Last Updated: 
May 2015


This indicator reports on changes in the percentage of Aboriginal people (15 years or older), that are able to speak an Aboriginal language, per ecozone in the NWT.

This information is summarized from NWT Bureau of Statistics - Language Statistics (2009)2.

Mr. Harry Simpson prayer song.
Mr. Harry Simpson prayer song.

NWT focus

Aboriginal languages reflect stories and places in a specific environment. NWT animals, plants, rivers, lakes, land – the NWT’s environment - is richly described and understood in the NWT’s nine Aboriginal languages. Each language is suited to fully transmit stories, expressions, and knowledge about specific ecozones in the NWT. Loss of these languages, or any impoverishment of words, from one generation to the next, can result in loss of environmental traditional knowledge.

Preserving languages is one way to help preserve traditional knowledge (TK), which has been recognized as an important component of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

"Article 8(j): Traditional Knowledge, Innovations and Practices …respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge innovations and practices." 3

People are making decisions today that will affect the future state of the NWT environment. Aboriginal TK influences these decisions; this knowledge is often better transmitted in its original language.

Current view: status and trend

The last survey in 2009 found that an average of 38% of Aboriginal people in the NWT could speak an Aboriginal language.

NWT - Use of Aboriginal Languages
Use of Aboriginal languages in the Northwest Territories

In the northern-most ecozones of the NWT (Northern and Southern Arctic), the Aboriginal languages most spoken is Inuvialuktun, followed by Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun. In these ecozones (which include Ulukhaktok, Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour, and Tuktoyaktuk) about 60%, 23%, 40% and 22% of Aboriginal people over 15 years of age, respectively, can speak an Aboriginal language. In the Taiga ecozomes over the past 25 years, the percentage of Dene and Metis who can speak an Aboriginal language has declined by 16%-24%. Languages most spoken in these ecozones are, from north to south: Gwich’in, North Slavey, Tlicho, South Slavey, Chipewyan, and Cree. In 2009, between 47% and 81% of Aboriginal people in these Taiga ecozones indicated that they could speak an Aboriginal language2.

Aboriginal languages in the NWT

Chipewyan, Cree, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey, Tlicho

Number of Aboriginal language speakers in the NWT 1984 - 2009
Source : NWT Bureau of Stats. 1984, 1989, 1994 and 1999 - NWT Labour Force Surveys; 2004 and 2009 - NWT Community Surveys. Northern Arctic: Ulukhaktok (Holman), Sachs Harbour; Southern Arctic: Paulatuk, Tuktoyaktuk; Taiga Cordillera: Wrigley; Taiga Plains: Aklavik, Colville Lake, Déline, Enterprise, Fort Good Hope, Fort Liard, Fort McPherson, Fort Providence, Fort Resolution, Fort Simpson, Fort Smith, Hay River, Hay River Reserve, Inuvik, Jean Marie River, Kakisa, Nahanni Butte, Norman Wells, Trout Lake, Tsiigehtchic, Tulita, Whatì;Taiga Shield: Behchokò (Rae-Edzo), Detah, Gamètì (Rae Lakes), Lutselk'e, Wekweètì, Yellowknife.

Looking forward

The Aboriginal people have noted with great concern the decline of Aboriginal languages in most NWT communities. Retention and revitalization of Aboriginal languages face a number of challenges. These challenges (e.g. value placed on dominant languages, communications, technologies, etc.) must be addressed and opportunities must be realized for successful revitalization efforts.

Looking around

A number of successful and effective language revitalization efforts are occurring in North America and around the world. Some of the most well-known efforts (the Navajo in the United States and the Maori of New Zealand), are well documented and provide useful information and perspective. Use of Aboriginal languages also is in decline in Australia1. The “Status of Traditional Knowledge, Innovations and Practices” is an indicator tracked at the International level to assess progress towards biodiversity targets adopted under the Convention of Biological Diversity.

Programs use this indicator to track changes, access and safeguards of TK on biodiversity around the world. These organizations and programs compile the information from the NWT, added to information from other regions in Canada and the world, and reported back regularly on the state of Aboriginal languages, to help reduce loss of both TK and biodiversity:

For more information

Other focal points

Contact us

Found an error or have a question? Contact the team at NWTSOER@gov.nt.ca.

Reference List

Ref 1 - Australian Government. 2002. Indicator: NCH-24 Survey of use of Indigenous languages.  

Ref 2 - NWT Bureau of Statistics. 2014. Language Statistics.

Ref 3Convention on Biological Diversity

Updated: May 2015