In 2016, the UN General Assembly passed resolution A/RES/71/178 proclaiming 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The resolution came after the recommendation of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues: because 40% of the world’s 6,700 languages are in danger of disappearing, new initiatives are necessary to preserve (and revitalize) them.
The International Federation of Translators (FIT, Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs) is supporting the UN resolution by choosing Translation and Indigenous Languages as the theme for International Translation Day, to be celebrated — like every year — on September 30th.
When is a language considered dead?
The British linguist David Crystal has devoted a book (Language Death) to this topic. A language is dead, he writes, when no one speaks it anymore. And when there is only one last speaker of a language, that language is already dead. It’s not a tool of communication anymore, but “more a repository, an archive of a people’s past.” But this doesn’t necessarily mean total extinction.
Take Marie Wilcox, for example, who at the age of 86 is the last speaker of Wukchumni, an indigenous language that was spoken by a Native American tribe in California. In a short documentary by National Geographic, we can see Marie recording words and stories to create the first Wukchumni dictionary and, in the process, teaching her family the language.
Why do languages die?
Sometimes languages die out quickly, for example when small communities of speakers are wiped out by wars of other catastrophes.
In El Salvador, in 1932 Salvadoran troops killed tens of thousands of mostly indigenous peasants in order to suppress an uprising. After that massacre, speakers of the indigenous Lenca and Cacaopera stopped using their languages to avoid being identified as natives.
In general, most languages become gradually extinct when generations and generations of speakers become bilingual and begin to lose proficiency in their traditional language. It’s the risk, for example, that the Australian Aboriginal languages have faced, following the 2009 policy of the Australian Department of Education meant to marginalize the use of indigenous languages in schools.
Two happy endings
There are also success cases when it comes to the survival of endangered languages.
The indigenous language of Guaraní is one of the two official languages of Paraguay, the other being Spanish. According to WordAtlas, nearly 87% of Paraguay’s population speaks Spanish, while Guaraní is spoken by about 4,650,000 people, accounting for over 90% of the people of Paraguay. In rural areas, 52% of the Guaraní speakers are monolingual.
The linguistic situation in Paraguay is complex: Most people tend to code-switch between Spanish and Guaraní. Better educated and more urbanized people tend to speak Spanish with few words of Guaraní. Less educated and more rural indigenous people tend to speak Guaraní with many Spanish words.
Besides Paraguay, Guaraní shares the status of official language with Spanish and other indigenous languages also in Bolivia and Argentina.
Some languages manage to come back to life, thanks to the hard work of preservationists who revive them as a matter of regional or ethnic identity. The first example that comes to mind is Hebrew. The Hebrew language died out as a colloquial language between the second and the fourth century CE, but it continued to be used as a language of religion and scholarship. The spoken and literary language was revived in a more modernized form in the 19th–20th century and it is now the first language of millions of people in Israel.
Linguists and technology to the rescue
Linguists — and the language learning community at large — can be of great help; for example by developing materials and content and by promoting interest in studying and speaking indigenous languages to people outside the community. In addition, creating demand will also encourage the development of media and learning materials.
In 2008 the documentary The Linguists was presented at the Sundance Film Festival. It tells the work of two Indiana Jones of linguistics, David K. Harrison and Gregory D.S. Anderson, who traveled the globe armed with recorders and cameras to document and archive endangered indigenous languages, like Chulym (spoken in the former Soviet Union) and Kallawaya (spoken in Bolivia).
The current project by Anderson and Harrison is called Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, which organizes digital skills workshops to help local indigenous communities maintain and revitalize endangered languages and cultures all over the world, in many cases with the use of everyday technology, like video, still photography, audio recorders, and computers with customized language software.
In fact, technology in its various forms can help save indigenous languages from extinction. Think Facebook, YouTube, messaging apps, chatbots, artificial intelligence.
Duolingo, a popular app among those who want to acquire the most basic vocabulary of a foreign language, has introduced Navajo (that counts now 150,000 speakers) and Ōlelo Hawaiʻi (a Hawaiian language with some 1,000 speakers).
Machine translation can also be useful for language preservation, although data collection is more labor-intensive and must rely greatly on local speakers.
Even with all its faults, social media can be a massive force of change. Allowing operating devices such as smartphones to be utilized in languages like Hawaiian and Cherokee is a significant boost, and allowing keyboard inputs for languages like Irish and Yoruba gives those languages a leg up.
For a general overview of all indigenous languages, Google has developed a fascinating Google Earth tour. You can spin the image of the Earth and click on one of the red dots to find out more about an indigenous language. You can also listen to audio recordings from over 50 Indigenous language speakers.
Why should we care?
Some think that sharing a global single language could promote understanding and peace; others believe that language loss follows the (natural) law of the jungle and it’s just a matter of evolution.
A language is a cultural tool and that, as such, it is necessary to fully express the identity, the history and the knowledge of a people.
Evolution doesn’t always mean change. In some cases, it means loss, loss of species (think of the cute dodo) and loss of information. We have a duty to protect endangered species, just as we also have a duty to protect endangered languages. It is a question of guaranteeing all the various forms of our planet’s biodiversity, which is the basis of our ecosystem.