COVID-19 and its impact on Indigenous language revitalization

Photo taken from the beach, showing evergreen forest, sandy beach with driftwood and ocean coastline.
Photo credit: A. Marinakis

Responses from language revitalization practitioners, learners, teachers and Elders


Team members

  • Onowa McIvor | President’s Chair and Professor of Indigenous Education, University of Victoria
  • Kari Chew| Assistant Professor of Indigenous Education, University of Oklahoma; NEȾOLṈEW̱ Collaborator
  • Kahtehrón:ni Iris Stacey | Kahnawà:ke Education Center, NEȾOLṈEW̱ Community Partner; Vanier Scholar/Doctoral Candidate, McGill University
  • Aliki Marinakis | Indigenous Language Programs Manager, University of Victoria
  • Melpetkwe Matthew | Chief Ahtam School, NEȾOLṈEW̱ Community Partner; Research Assistant; MA Student, SFU
  • Kanen’tó:kon Hemlock | Research Assistant; PhD student, University of Hilo, Hawai'i in Language and Culture Revitalization

About this project

Indigenous communities across Canada and the world are working hard to keep their languages alive and bring them back into everyday use. Most language work takes place in person, where face-to-face interaction is an important aspect of learning, teaching and sharing between students, speakers, elders and knowledge keepers.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic immediately interrupted our ability to gather in person, greatly impacting the majority of language work that previously took place at home, at school and in the community. This overnight shift created both challenges and opportunities and sparked innovative responses from Indigenous language learners.

What led to this project?

Early on in the pandemic, it became clear that language learning would not be able to continue in many of the ways it had previously. Witnessing this, Dr. McIvor and her research team presented a goal of researching, documenting and studying the shifts that Indigenous language learners, teachers and speakers are making in their work during the pandemic.

In June 2020, the team was awarded Faculty of Education COVID-19 Emergency Research Funding for a short-term study of the impacts of the pandemic on Indigenous language revitalization. The research took place immediately in the summer of 2020.

What did the researchers do?

Dr. McIvor’s team gathered information by conducting surveys, interviews and a social media scan. 140 survey and interview participants representing 19 Indigenous languages participated in this study and were asked about their language learning activities before and during the pandemic. The social media scan gathered Facebook and Instagram posts published between March and July of 2020 that included keywords about COVID and Indigenous language revitalization. The collected posts were grouped by emerging themes which are presented in these project findings.

Project findings

Resilience during difficult times

  • Indigenous communities continue to show resiliency and adjust during difficult times
  • Language workers took a moment to regroup amongst the rapid changes and the new and real dangers. Then, many did what Indigenous peoples have always done in the face of danger and adversity: adapt.
  • When the pandemic threatened individual and community wellness, language learners had to consider how to sustain languages while adhering to social distancing guidelines
  • In three of our languages:
    • Achónna'chi (Chikashshanompa', “Keep going”)
    • ᐊᐦᑲᒣᔨᒧᐠ / ahkameyimok (nehiyawewin, “All of you persevere”)
    • Ionkwahkátste (Kanien'kéha, “We are resilient”)

Shifts in language work

  • Significant drop in school-based activities (50% to 14%)
  • Drop-in community-based activities (51% to 21%)
  • Home-based activities remained stabled (52% to 49%)
  • Largest increase in online learning activities, nearly double (from 37% to 76%)
  • Language practitioners saw that the way forward was to shift and adapt language work to ensure community health and safety
  • Overall, researchers observed a 64% increase in the use of technology to support Indigenous language revitalization during the pandemic
  • Some language learners have been spending much time at home with their immediate family

New technologies, new strategies

  • Communities reported using new technologies (63%) and developing new strategies (56%) for online learning and teaching during the pandemic. Examples included:
    • Hosting virtual circle times for children
    • Sending packages and books to family learning pods
    • Involving youth in creating online language resources
    • Livestreamed adult language classes crossed vast geographic distances
  • In video-chats with speakers, learners asked how to say “toilet paper” in their languages and shared these recordings with the world, bringing much needed humor—and another reminder of Indigenous ways of survival to the fore.
  • Virtual scavenger hunts, talent shows and game nights

Social media as a language tool

  • A scan of social media platforms (Facebook and Instagram) found that posts could be categorized around emerging themes: language promotion, using language to talk about COVID-19, posts to promote online learning opportunities, creating and sharing language learning resources
  • Social media was used for sharing words and phrases, “word of the day” and COVID-related terms like “social distancing”
  • Hashtag campaigns, like the widely-used #2020IndigenousLanguageChallenge
  • Communities “dusted off” and digitized existing resources that may have been forgotten or underused
  • Sharing stories, lessons, video files, word lists/phrases and labelled images
  • Indigenous communities quickly began to create and share digital resources in their languages about dangers and protective measures around COVID-19, such as proper handwashing techniques, social media posters and videos

Caring for Elders and youth

  • Protecting Elders who were most at-risk to the virus became paramount
  • Supporting Elders in new online work ensured that language work continued in a safe way
  • Youth also needed support through the ever-changing circumstances of their lives
  • While following public health guidelines, people gathered at times in safe pods

Returning to the land

  • The pandemic brought unexpected opportunities for some to (re)turn to land-based language work outdoors. Some gathered while socially-distanced
  • Turning to the land and our languages for those in urban areas brought grounding and joy during a time of missing loved ones and homelands. Land-based learning provided calmness during a time of great fear

Some challenges communities faced

  • Lack of reliable internet connection
  • Difficult to learn and teach in virtual spaces
  • Difficult to gauge the impact of online content shared
  • Training to use the technology and software, while apart
  • Nuances of language learning that only happen face-to-face
  • Sense of loss as much of the beauty of language learning happens in-person with Elders

How can you use this research?

Our languages will benefit most if we find a way to harness the realities before us and share what we have learned with one another. We invite you to join us, to co-conspire and build strength among and between our movements, keeping our languages alive and strong for all of our relations, and generations yet to come.

The long-term impacts of these observed phenomena have yet to be seen. Some questions that rise to the top include:

  • What have we learned that is worth holding onto? For example, what shifts and innovations from the pandemic will have useful lasting impacts on Indigenous language revitalization?
  • What implications might affect language revitalization work in the years to come?
  • What strategies can be adjusted for an online format? For example, 1:1 work with Elders, learning on the land and work that involves relationship-building.

Web resources


McIvor, O. & Hemlock, K. (2021). Indigenous languages persistence during the COVID-19 pandemic: Individual and community efforts keep our languages strong [Infographic]. 

Chew, K. A. B., McIvor, O., Hemlock, K. & Marinakis, A. (2022, forthcoming). Persistence in Indigenous language work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Full-length journal article. Submitted to AlterNative.

Chew, K.A.B. (2021). #KeepOurLanguagesStrong: Indigenous language revitalization on social media during the early COVID-19 pandemic. Language Documentation & Conservation, 15, 239-266.

McIvor, O., Chew, K. A. B., & Stacey, K. I. (2020). Indigenous language learning impacts, challenges and opportunities in COVID-19 times. AlterNative, 16(4), 409-412. 


McIvor, O., Chew, K. A. B., Stacey, K. I., Jenni, B., & Marinakis, A. (2020, November 19). Indigenous language learning: Researching the impacts and opportunities of COVID-19 [Conference presentation]. 2020 International Indigenous Research Conference, Auckland, New Zealand. 

Chew, K. A. B. (2021, November). Words of encouragement to Indigenous language advocates during the pandemic [Video].

Chew, K. A. B. (2020, November). How is COVID-19 impacting Indigenous language revitalization? [Abstract and video].