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Why Canada needs a language museum

Katharine Snider McNair
Executive Assistant
Canadian Language Museum

2015-08-10

Most people can identify heritage when they see it. We regard many of our old buildings as important landmarks of history and important parts of an attractive cityscape. We visit museums to see artifacts from our own cultures past and present, and from those around the world. We purchase reissued novels with their original book covers. However, there are other ways in which our histories are passed down that are harder to hold onto – this is what we call intangible heritage.

As UNESCO says on its website, “Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects.” Intangible cultural heritage “includes traditions and living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants.” This broad definition encompasses the many varied and wonderful social actions performed by humans, including language and the ways we communicate with one another.

The Canadian Language Museum is part of a growing, global effort to preserve and celebrate languages, and educate the public about them. While most institutions focus on a specific language or dialect, we have taken on the challenge of promoting an appreciation of all the languages spoken in Canada. Few countries can match Canada’s rich and varied language heritage, which includes Aboriginal languages from coast to coast, the official languages of French and English and their regional dialects, and the many languages brought to this country by more recent immigrants. The Canadian Language Museum encourages dialogue on language issues that are central to the future of Canadian society, such as bilingualism, multilingualism, and language endangerment, preservation, and revitalization.

So how do we do this? To date we have produced four travelling exhibits about Canadian English, the Inuit language, French in Canada, and Cree. Our exhibits are created with the assistance of expert advisors, community members, and Museum Studies master’s students from the University of Toronto. Happily, there is plenty of interest in intangible heritage and languages, and our exhibits have been shown across Canada, in schools, museums, libraries, and hospitals. We also operate a blog that aims to bridge the gap between the realm of academic linguistics and the interests of a broader public.

According to the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, there are 75 endangered languages in Canada. In fact, a CTV news report notes that Canada has the fifth highest number of endangered languages in the world. These troubling statistics prove that there is a critical need to promote awareness about the diverse array of languages spoken in Canada and encourage action before these vessels for knowledge, culture, history, and identity are no longer carried by native speakers. In other words, there is plenty more work to be done.

If you are interested in hosting one of our exhibits or would like to get in touch with us, you can visit the Canadian Language Museum website. We are always interested in speaking with potential collaborators, partners, volunteers, and all people passionate about the many languages that can be found from coast to coast.