Indigenous Englishes in Canadian Schools

Date: March 15, 2012 | Category: Guest Column
Author: Andrea Sterzuk

I grew up in western Canada where jokes about "native" accents are commonplace (click here for one example of this kind of linguistic othering). While my lessons on the relationship between colonialism and stereotypes of "accented" Englishes began at a young age, my research interest emerged roughly ten years ago when I came across a discussion article describing the language needs of speakers of Indigenous English (Englishes spoken by some First Nations and Métis in Canada) in Saskatchewan schools (Heit & Blair, 1993). For more information about these varieties of English, Sharla Peltier, an Anishinaabe speech and language pathologist, provides an in-depth description of the origins, nature, and educational implications of Indigenous Englishes, or First Nations English dialects, in her Strathy guest column blog post here.

As an educational researcher, I'm interested in the ways in which settler schools are involved in producing linguistic homogeneity through school practices. Some examples of the ways in which this production of sameness can occur are: curriculum materials that privilege a national, monolithic, and native-speaker ideal as "standard English"; an absence of teachers who speak minority language varieties of English;teacher referrals to speech and language pathologists of students who are speakers of minority English language varieties; and print literacy programs that do not scaffold learners in their task of developing fluency in a new English language variety. Over the last decade, I've explored my research interests in Indigenous Englishes through two classroom-based studies in elementary schools (2003, 2009, 2011) as well as a study of Faculty of Education students' views of Indigenous Englishes (2010).

My classroom-based studies examined the experiences of Indigenous English-speaking students in Saskatchewan elementary schools. While I did not set out to produce a linguistic description of the English language varieties spoken by the First Nations and Métis students in my study, I did gather examples, through interviews with educators as well as classroom observations of children, of some features specific to Indigenous Englishes in Saskatchewan. The study results indicate that some of the First Nations children of this study speak a variety of English that differs phonologically, morphologically, syntactically, and lexically from "standard" or settler Saskatchewan Englishes. The findings also indicate that many of the settler educators involved in this study demonstrated little awareness of the linguistic characteristics of Indigenous English, constructing these Englishes, instead, as language "deficits" resulting from the students' homes and families. My 2010 study of Education students' views of Indigenous English included analysis of student assignments from a required course in language and literacy development. Similar to my school classroom-based research, results from this study found that these pre-service teachers demonstrated deficit views of Indigenous Englishes. Students attributed their views of Indigenous Englishes to their own childhood experiences, both in and out of school.

What my educational research of Indigenous English indicates is that, while schools are sites of linguistic pluralism, English language varieties like Indigenous Englishes can often be viewed by teachers as a detriment, something that gets in the way of students' development of literacy skills and mastery of subject material. More long term research is needed to determine how to best counter standard language discourses that continue to circulate in schools and society and in determining how these views of language influence educational outcomes in schools and the lives of First Nations and Métis students who are speakers of Indigenized Englishes.

Andrea Sterzuk has worked as an elementary school teacher in Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. She received her doctorate in Second Language Education with a specialization in Language Acquisition from McGill University. Andrea is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in languages and literacies education. Her current research interests are related to the development of language beliefs in pre-service teachers. 



Heit, M., & Blair, H. (1993). Language needs and characteristics of Saskatchewan Indian and Métis students: Implications for educators. In S. Morris, K. McLeod, & M. Danesi (Eds.), Languages and learning: Aboriginal and heritage language education in Canada (pp. 103-128). Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press.

Sterzuk, A. (2011). The struggle for legitimacy: Indigenized Englishes in settler schools. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Sterzuk, A. (2010). Indigenous English and standard language ideology: Towards a postcolonial view of English in teacher education. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 32, 100-113

Sterzuk, A. (2009). Language as an agent of division in Saskatchewan schools. In C. Schick & J. McNinch (Eds.), "I Thought Pocahontas Was a Movie": Perspectives on Race/Culture Binaries in Education and Service Professions (pp. 1-14). Regina, SK: Canadian Plains Research Center.

Sterzuk, A. (2003). A study of Indigenous English speakers in a standard English classroom. Unpublished master's thesis, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.