Linguistic Colonialoscopy: Decolonizing Native Languages

by Frederick White, Ph.D
News From Indian Country

Colonialoscopy is a play on the medical procedure term, colonoscopy, a procedure allowing us to see what is in the colon. Linguistic colonialoscopy allows us to see how colonization has affected our Indigenous languages.

We can consider the process of how our languages have shifted from being the language of wider communication to the present situation in which, for many of our communities, the Indigenous language are endangered due to a lack of transmission to our children.

While the factors are many, there is a recurring pattern that typifies all communities that now speak English as a first language (certainly there are French and Spanish influences as well, but for simplicity, I mention English). How does this happen historically?


Contact with English transpires when first encountering newcomers. Eventually more and more members of the community learn English. Their engagement is limited in interaction, perhaps due to trading, eventually with greater contact more interaction.

As greater contact ensues, using and learning English begins to transform the home community. At first there are just a few situations that English begins to take over, though slowly more and more situations occur. Finally, not speaking Indigenous language becomes normal.

There are a lot of explanations for this shift to English, but two main reasons include formal education and preference of English. As the settlement and expansion continues west, greater transition to English occurs. There is greater normalcy in not learning Indigenous language especially with the advent of reserves/reservations and with residential/boarding schools. The transition to English is forced at first, but later is succumbed and even preferred.

Preferring English has many ramifications. Parents decide to not teach children Indigenous language for many reasons, including the psychological battering of assimilation.

For this reason, many adults choose to speak only English to their children because they do not want their children to suffer as they did for knowing their Indigenous language. Some children still learned some Indigenous language, but speaking and comprehension are limited. English becomes priority for education, employment, and survival.

To reverse the language shift, learn and speak our own language; engage in interaction with greater intentionality; have more interaction using our Indigenous language; and transition back to Indigenous language in our home community.

Favor and value the Indigenous language; elders must decide to teach children Indigenous language so all children learn their Indigenous language. Start with just a few occasions, slowly adding more and more situations so finally speaking and hearing our Indigenous language becomes normal.

Frederick White
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania