Reflecting on 25 years of Indigenous language revitalization

The Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literary Development Institute continues to work alongside Indigenous communities to preserve and sustain their languages

Caitlin Crawshaw - 21 June 2024

In an effort to preserve and revitalize the many Indigenous languages spoken across what is now known as Canada, The Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literary Development Institute (CILLDI) has been collaborating directly with Indigenous communities for the past 25 years to ensure these languages thrive before the last generation of native speakers is lost.

“It’s a race,” says Jordan Lachler, CILLDI’s director since 2011. “Will we be able to do enough, quickly enough, to stem the tide? Things are definitely improving, but it’s still a critical care issue.”

CILLDI, which is currently housed in the Faculty of Arts, began in 1999 as a grassroots project initiated by a handful of U of A professors in the disciplines of native studies, linguistics and education. “They felt the university had a responsibility to do something, but they didn’t initially know what that ‘something’ was,” says Lachler.

So, they started with a summer Cree language immersion for Indigenous language activists wanting to hone language skills and learn how to teach others. From that first class of nine students, the summer program has grown to 12-15 courses serving about 140 students, both in-person and online.

Courses cover a broad range of topics, from language learning (like the first Cree immersion program) and linguistics (teaching language structure and analysis), to education (teaching skills and creation of language learning materials, for instance) and community language planning (strategizing the teaching and learning of languages within communities). Some CILLDI courses focus on using technology to both preserve language through recordings of native speakers and delivering language instruction.

“The other 11 months of the year, we take the summer school on the road to Indigenous communities,” says Lachler. Unlike summer school courses, which involve speakers from several language communities, courses held within specific communities focus on a single language.

“With these courses, we can really work with the community to customize the content of the course for the specific language spoken and where they’re at in their language revitalization journey,” he says. While some communities have many fluent speakers, others have very few. Communities also vary in terms of the Elders available to support learners.

Another aspect of the institute’s work is documenting languages for preservation and study, and researching language revitalization training. Despite the growth in language revitalization efforts across Canada, little research has explored the best methods or outcomes within communities.

Some of CILLDI’s recent work, such as its research efforts, was possible because of a significant grant from The BHP Foundation — an international charity that funds sustainability projects —  in 2021. The funding has allowed CILLDI to hire additional staff, expand the summer program’s course offerings, and explore new ways of broadening the institute’s impact, such as creating a consortium of language revitalization organizations.

In the bigger scope of Indigenous language revitalization, a great deal has changed since CILLDI’s inception. Lachler notes growing public awareness about Indigenous language loss and more Indigenous languages being taught in Canadian schools. Additionally, the Indigenous Languages Act was passed in 2019 to help protect Indigenous languages.

There has also been a growth in the number of second-language learners of Indigenous languages, which provides hope for the survival of many endangered languages. However, these gains could be lost in a single generation if speakers do not have the resources to pass the language along to their children, and the race is still on to document and preserve languages with only a handful of remaining speakers.

“In this sense, the need for people to be doing this work, and being supported in this work, is all the more important today than it was 25 years ago,” says Lachler.

For more information about CILLDI, please email If you’re interested in donating to the institute, please contact Your support will help preserve the invaluable knowledge and cultural heritage embedded within Indigenous languages for future generations.