Indigenous Peoples Day: What can be done to save dying languages?

The massacre of tribal peoples and colonial thinking lead to loss of identity, says Survival International researcher.

A boy of the Guarani Kaiowa tribe
Indigenous people make up fewer than five percent of the world’s population, but speak a majority of its estimated 7,000 languages, according to the UN [File: Felipe Dana/AP]

Near the top of the world, in Canada‘s sparsely populated northern Nunavut territory, the Inuit are known to have as many as 50 different words for snow.

Languages everywhere, from Nunavut’s tree-less tundra to the southerly coral atolls of the South Pacific, are intertwined with the environments in which they are spoken.

But many are being lost at an alarming rate.

Approximately 600 languages have disappeared in the last century, with one dying every two weeks, according to UNESCO, the UN’s education, science and culture agency.

If trends continue, up to 90 percent of the world’s languages could be lost before 2100, with indigenous varieties – those native to a country, or region – deemed most vulnerable.

The social, economic and environmental impacts of language loss among some of the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous people could be catastrophic.

On Thursday, to coincide with International Day of the World’s Indigenous PeoplesAl Jazeera spoke to Fiona Watson, a research director for campaign group  Survival International  about indigenous language loss and why our words matter.

Al Jazeera: Why are indigenous languages dying?

Fiona Watson: One way languages are being lost is quite simply through the massacre of tribal peoples, we are seeing the extinction of people and their languages in our time. Another reason is forced schooling and development, people like the Bushmen in Southern Africa, who in the last two centuries have had their land stolen from them and been forced in countries like Botswana into resettlement camps where the mainstream population, through racism and ignorance, say their way of life is backwards and primitive.

People are taken from their communities and put into schools – places like Canada, the United States and Australia have already undergone this – and that’s where they are taught that everything about their identity, culture and language is wrong. There’s a colonial mentality, where a national language is forced on them. 

There’s also homogeneity and globalisation, some indigenous peoples’ communities are being fragmented and broken up through land theft.

Loss of land means people often have no other alternative than to migrate to towns and cities in search of work and they have to speak the national language in order to be able to work.

Al Jazeera: How does this loss of language affect indigenous people?

Watson: The ultimate human right for anyone is self-determination, it’s the right to decide how you wish to live. Language is a vital part of that, its part of choice.

Language is also part of identity, so all that it means to be whatever your people is, when your language goes you lose your historical and geographical context.

Indigenous and tribal people have such amazing knowledge, they’re botanists, zoologists and healers, and their knowledge of the natural world is often massive. And language can be extremely valuable in terms of our future, the planet and science.

Approximately 28,000 Inuit live in Nunavut, Canada's northernmost territory [File: David Ljunggren/Reuters]
Approximately 28,000 Inuit live in Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost territory [File: David Ljunggren/Reuters]

For example, the Inuit have so many words for snow, because they are such skilled observers and they have to be, because their life depends on it. They can grade very finely what type of snow it is, which has an impact on where they might hunt or where it’s dangerous or not dangerous to tread.

These fine descriptions could be very important for scientists looking into the melting of the ice caps and climate change, because it’s extremely detailed knowledge that anyone who hasn’t lived in that environment wouldn’t know.

Al Jazeera: What can be done to save languages? 

Watson:  One of the most important things is to school people in their maternal tongue. Where educational materials are in the native tongue, it instils not just identity but also a sense of pride that this is our language and now, we can read and write in it.

Language, like people, is not static. It’s always changing. [But where] indigenous people still have their language, even if it’s continually adapting and changing, they are much more successful in surviving and living in their environment and passing on knowledge to a younger generation, which is going to keep the language alive.

What is [also] important is that non-indigenous people who are working with indigenous people, particularly health workers or teachers, learn some of the language so they can communicate with them. 

Al Jazeera: Are new languages yet to be discovered?

Watson: Yes, because certainly there are tribes, mainly in the Amazon basin, who have their own languages and we don’t know anything about them.

We might know they (the people) exist, but we don’t know if their language belongs to a language trunk or whether it is an isolated one – such as Basque, which doesn’t bear any relation to other languages in Europe.

The ultimate human right for anyone is self-determination, it's the right to decide how you wish to live. Language is a vital part of that, its part of choice.


Elsewhere, in Papua, the western part of New Guinea, there are some very remote if not uncontacted tribes and I should think there is massive linguistic diversity there which we don’t know anything about.

And then there are the Sentinelese, the indigenous people of North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Islands, who are uncontacted. They don’t want contact, they have made that very clear, and we still have no idea what language they speak.

Al Jazeera: Why should non-indigenous language speakers care?

Watson: Language is part of diversity. We value biodiversity in an ecological sense, it’s considered important to the planet, and I would hope that people value human diversity, too. We are living in an increasingly globalised and homogenised world, but actually, diversity is hugely important because it informs the way we think.

If you lose a language you’re losing part of a window onto a people. It may not practically affect us if a language is lost on the other side of the world, but in terms of our human diversity, it does affect us in a remote way. If we don’t have the ability to appreciate difference, then what sort of a humanity is that?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Source: Al Jazeera