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Get talking – are we losing indigenous languages?

  • Written by  Sophie Donovan
  • Published in Cultures
Get talking – are we losing indigenous languages?
03 Aug
Land rights for the indigenous are still a problem, but is it time to turn our attention to language?

According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, ‘suppressing indigenous people’s demands to a healthy environment’ continues to be an issue. However, there is an issue beyond land use that the human rights NGO sees as being in need of discussion, one that in fact requires more talking in general. The loss of indigenous languages around the world is a growing concern. The Rosetta Project, a network of language experts and native speakers working to preserve 'endangered tongues, has suggested that one language is being lost to the world every three months, a trend set to continue as it calculates that 92 per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by fewer than ten people each. UNESCO, meanwhile, has previously suggested that a language is becoming extinct every two weeks, and that ‘approximately 600 languages have disappeared in the last century’.

Interactive map of indigenous languages

As well as the rate, there is also disagreement in official circles over what actually defines language loss, with no one providing definitive criteria for when one crosses the point of no return. David Crystal, a patron for the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, has suggested that language extinction be when ‘the last person who speaks it dies’. He states that while ‘there is nothing unusual about a single language dying,’ we are witnessing language extinction ‘on a massive scale’.

Providing estimates and causation theories are various key stakeholders stressing the importance of language diversity. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues explains that ‘this threat is acutely felt by indigenous peoples’. This is due to the languages no longer being taught to emerging generations, being almost exclusively a possession of the elders. In Crystal’s words, this is an issue; those speaking a language ‘are a living monument to what the community once was’, a responsibility he feels the next generation should carry.

While not passing a language on to a younger generation does have a major influence on its extinction, the globalisation of English has also played a key role. There are currently estimated to be some 360 million English as first-language speakers across almost 100 countries worldwide. Its use in governments, academic journals and trade negotiations has aided this spread. Patricia Ryan, a long-time English teacher in the Middle East who has given many high-profile talks on the effects of English around the world, explains that while it is the ‘undisputed global language’, English does not translate every view and every term used by its local counterparts, something Ryan believes is often forgotten. ‘When a language dies, we don’t always know what we lose with that language,’ she says.

HebrewHebrew came back from the ‘dead’ in the late 19th century

Extinction isn’t always the end of the road for a language, however. The death, then later rebirth, of spoken Israeli Hebrew shows how, with concerted effort, a once-dead tongue can find a new lease of life. At the beginning of the 19th century, the language only existed in scholarly and religious written work having died out in spoken form around 200 to 400CE. According to Claude Hagege, a noted french linguist who himself speaks some 50 languages, its revival as a spoken form used in everyday Jewish life occurred only because of the ‘strong will’ of the Israeli Jews. It is now estimated that there are nine million Hebrew speakers worldwide.

Campaigners such as those at the Rosetta Project are asking whether more languages should hold official status, such as Welsh. In Wales, both English and Welsh were made official languages in 1993 under the Welsh Language Act, the goal being for both tongues to carry the same importance and be widely used across the country – extinction prohibited by legislation. The legal system, road signs and education all now contain English and Welsh versions sitting side by side. A new set of goals under the Welsh government’s Cymraeg 2050 strategy include the aim to create one million Welsh speakers by 2050.

WelshWelsh is protected by government legislation

UNESCO is hoping similar tactics will be just as successful on a much larger scale. 2019 has been designated the International Year of Indigenous Languages. This will involve stressing the importance of linguistic diversity, stating that it ‘matters for development, peace-building and reconciliation’. The action plan for the year suggests the centrality of indigenous peoples in official decision-making, drawing on their anecdotal knowledge. There will also be an emphasis on the development of language-sharing technology.

Preparation for the year has, in fact, already begun with the first official event having taken place last month. A three-day international seminar in Asunción, Paraguay was used to present the achievements of previous language policies and to detail how UNESCO was hoping to build on these results. Further, an International Decade on Indigenous Languages (covering 2020 to 2030) was also proposed to continue any targets unmet within the course of 2019. UNESCO stresses that avoiding indigenous language extinction will play ‘a vital role in the sustainable development of the communities that speak them.’

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