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Lifelines for indigenous languages | The World Weekly

At least 2,500 languages around the world are in danger. Many of those under threat are autochthonous languages, spoken by small numbers of indigenous people often living in remote communities. 

According to linguist Anastasia Riehl of Queen’s University in Canada, the pace of language loss “has been exacerbated by our increasingly interconnected world”. Globalisation has brought about the dominance of a handful of globally influential languages which threaten those spoken by smaller communities.

“In the present era, languages' links with their ancient territories are being cut, and becoming less important,” linguist and author Nicholas Ostler told The World Weekly. At the same time, “links of their speakers to neighbouring populations (who may speak quite different and more populous languages) are being promoted at their expense.” 

This trend has been in evidence for quite some time, says Dr. Ostler, starting with the “largely European colonial spread” and furthered in the 19th century by “political emphasis on nation states with national languages.” 

In former colonies in particular, those who do not speak the colonial language continue to lack fair representation and struggle to assert the value of their mother tongues. 

Over 75% of Native American languages have now disappeared, and the future of many of those remaining looks uncertain. “Today, only 2% of Native Americans are fluent in their language,” a spokesperson for The Language Conservancy, an organisation that works to revitalise endangered languages, told TWW, “and 90% or more are over the age of 65.”

The global language

English is the official language of government institutions in Canada, Australia and South Africa. Many believe this monolingualism undermines the vast linguistic diversity found in these countries. 

In Australia, approximately 120 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are still in use. Around 70 languages are spoken by Indigenous Peoples in Canada and 20 of the 30 living languages in South Africa are indigenous to the country. 

To curb the ongoing effects of language colonisation, politicians and lobbying groups have recently brought indigenous languages into the foreground. Some prominent politicians in Canada and Australia have begun using autochthonous languages to deliver certain political statements. 

Liberal Canadian MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette is perhaps the most notable example. Mr. Ouellette comes from the Red Pheasant First Nation and last year gave a parliamentary speech in Cree, the language most widely-spoken by Indigenous Peoples in the country. 

In the absence of interpreters, Mr. Ouellette translated his own words into English. Politicians have since pushed for real-time interpretation of Indigenous languages in the House of Commons. An additional interpretation booth will be added this year. 

Despite these efforts, three quarters of languages spoken by Indigenous Peoples in Canada are endangered. The remaining languages are classified as “vulnerable” or “unsafe”. Only three languages, Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway, are thought to have enough speakers to be sustained indefinitely.

The vulnerability of these languages in Canada is emblematic of the plight of many others around the world. Communities can no longer rely on intergenerational transmission of language. Younger generations seek to integrate with peers in school and online, spheres increasingly dominated by globally influential languages. 

On average, one language death occurs every three months. In the next century, 50% of global languages may become extinct. 

A bad education?

Young children have a great capacity for language acquisition. Moreover, bilingualism has been shown to improve daily executive function and bilingual education to benefit pupils’ general cognitive development. Yet, many countries around the world opt for English-only institutions. 

In some education systems, “communities may be actively discouraged from using their language," Dr. Riehl told TWW. “This was the case for many Indigenous communities in Canada during residential schooling.” 

The schools, established in the 19th century, were intended to “assimilate” Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture and are widely believed to have contributed to the demise of First Nation languages. 

In December, South Africa looked to diversify its schools, as the African National Congress introduced the compulsory teaching of indigenous languages. A similar plan, unveiled in 2012, did not come to fruition. Last week, sceptics received more cause for doubt when the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of English-only language policies in universities. 

South Africa has 11 official languages. English is the fourth most spoken behind Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans, yet remains the language of choice in government, the media and many educational institutions.

For some communities, however, education is at the forefront of safeguarding minority languages and ensuring their future survival. Linguist David Harrison studied a linguistic revival on the Isle of Man where Manx, the Celtic language indigenous to the island, is making a comeback. 

The language, declared extinct in 1974, is now an optional subject for all students who study on the Isle of Man. Teachers at a Manx language primary school on the island deliver the whole curriculum in Manx. Two nurseries also specialise in the language.  

Last month, ministers released the Manx Language Strategy, a five-year plan aiming to promote the language on the national and international stage. The combination of dedicated community members, education reform, political organisation and new technology may have brought this language back from the dead.

Technology: a force for good

Advanced language-learning technology and access to online resources facilitate the perpetuation of many endangered languages. Technology is now a lifeline, rather than a threat, to indigenous languages. 

“The really savvy small language communities are using technology to sustain themselves, to expand their reach, and to broadcast themselves out through many different channels,” said Dr. Harrison in an interview for National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project. 

The acquisition of language via technology can take a variety of forms. A range of apps are now on offer, from online dictionaries and phrase books, to competitive language courses with quizzes and audio. 

The world’s first indigenous language television streaming app was launched only a few weeks ago. “Ojibway TV” aims to bring the Ojibway language into Canadian homes for both educational and entertainment purposes. 

Other forms of technology allow communication between speakers of little-known languages on widely-used digital platforms. For example, FirstVoices Chat is a multilingual texting app which allows First Nation youth in Canada to interact with popular social media, providing keypads to serve a wide variety of languages spoken by Indigenous communities.

In order to prove successful, observers say, this technology must be developed in conjunction with the needs and desires of the community members who speak minority languages.

“There’s a real misconception in the media about linguists ‘saving languages’,” Monica Macaulay, president of The Endangered Language Fund, told TWW. “Linguists have a set of skills to offer which can be helpful, but the motivation and the desire to do it has to come from within the community itself.”

Direct collaboration with native speakers is at the core of some more ambitious efforts, says Ms. Macaulay, “there are many wonderful projects going on all over the world run by amazingly inspired speakers and descendants of speakers.” 

Language forms an integral part of the cultural heritage and original identity of many communities. When languages are lost, a wealth of history, cultural specificity and unique forms of communication tend to go with them. 

There are no quick-fix solutions, but experts believe language revival is still possible in some cases. With growing support in political, educational and technological spheres, many more endangered indigenous languages may have a chance of survival. 

Linguistic diversity need not be lost in the modern world. 

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