This article explores how indigenous languages enrich humanity, why languages become endangered, why it’s important to preserve them, and what some organizations are doing to support efforts by communities that are working to revitalize their own languages.
Nearly twenty years into the twenty-first century, those of us alive today benefit from the best that human innovation and technology has to offer, from the latest digital breakthroughs like broadband and databases to inventions we now take for granted, like writing systems. In the long shadow of human history, writing is a somewhat recent development which has allowed us to gather and store information to pass on over time. Prior to the written word, oral storytelling was the means for humans to pass on knowledge to others. Across human history, languages have been the crux for humanity to propel itself forward over time. Through learning and building upon past instruction and knowledge, humanity has been able to grow and develop even more new advancements.
Languages and the ability to record and transfer knowledge through generations has allowed us to learn a lot about ourselves as a species as well as about each other as people. And when it comes to languages, we have discovered that it is rich with variety and diversity, not unlike the flora and fauna of the Earth. In fact, new languages are still being discovered every year. Recently, the total number of existing languages in the world today was estimated to be somewhere between 6000 and 7000; in 2017, the total settled on 7,099. Today, that number has risen to a total of 7,111 languages being spoken today. However extraordinary that number appears on the surface, the inconvenient reality is that many of these languages are at risk of fading away, with most of them belonging to indigenous peoples. According to the UN, 90 countries have indigenous communities, with about 5,000 unique indigenous cultures worldwide. Within these cultures, 2,680 languages are endangered.
For decades, scholars, linguists, and language preservation groups around the world have been sounding the alarm on the rate at which languages are disappearing. It’s estimated that one language dies every two weeks. Furthermore, only about 3% of the world can speak 96% of the world’s languages, and an estimated 40% of all languages are at risk of disappearing. The majority of these endangered languages belong to indigenous peoples, the loss of which threaten the vibrant fabric of our shared human heritage. These statistics, along with the recognition that these languages sustain cultures and deep knowledge while also aiding the world in peacebuilding, reconciliation and sustainable development, helped lead the United Nations General Assembly to declare 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages (#IYIL2019).
This international year extends the theme of Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007: “Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.”
Why are so many indigenous languages endangered? How do languages become endangered?
According to United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), some of the main reasons that languages enter endangered status are when the language is no longer taught to children and when it stops being used by those who know how to speak the language. There are many reasons why indigenous languages in particular become endangered, with some of it being painful history. External factors like military invasion and political warfare, including genocide, have historically been the most reprehensible of reasons. In the 1900s, language became targeted as a method to transfer a dominating culture to indigenous peoples (sometimes called “linguistic imperialism.”) Suppression of languages other than the dominant language were codified in public school systems, where the languages of ethnic groups were banned from schools and young speakers were punished when heard using languages other than English. This was a technique to assimilate children into the dominant culture and weaken the culture of minority groups.
Once children are no longer using a language, that is how a language systematically begins to disappear — when it is displaced by the socially and politically dominant language, and younger generations are no longer taught the language in their childhood. The damage created by this loss of language goes beyond the language itself; when the language begins to be lost, so does a society’s unique worldview, culture and heritage. And even as overtly imperialistic efforts have disappeared, languages are still under pressure because of globalization and urbanization. As more economic activity becomes concentrated in industrialized countries and cities, the motivation to speak the dominant language in order to integrate and have economic opportunity is hard to ignore. Once structural forces like these are in place, they can be hard to reverse, but not impossible.
Why is language preservation important? Why save indigenous languages?
Language affects our lives profoundly. It shapes our values, how we think and how we communicate with one another. Language makes it possible for us to express ourselves, to learn, and to teach others. On a sociocultural level, language allows us to build relations with others and pass on customs and traditions. Moreover, language plays an essential part in humanity’s intellectual diversity of thought and, on a spiritual level, language affects that experience as well. One famous example is undoubtedly Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” which was written in Latin in the 1850s and embraced by the Catholic Church, even though Latin was no longer a spoken language. The song is still performed in Latin today.
On a personal level, the first language we speak becomes part of our sense of identity, family, culture, and tradition. On a societal level, political leadership — including from countries like Canada and Australia, where long and complex histories with indigenous peoples exist — has come to see the role that indigenous languages have in shaping national identities. And while we know there is a need for peace and reconciliation amid the factors that caused many indigenous languages to go extinct or be at risk of extinction, language preservation is fundamental to learning more about our shared human history and to holding on to our distinctiveness as humans. Stories, histories, customs, traditions, unique expressions, and communities are carried down generation by generation through language. When a language becomes extinct, these aspects of human history and society are also lost.
Each language embodies the values and philosophies of a group of people. Each time a language disappears, we collectively lose a part of our human heritage, cultural diversity, and human civilization forever.
If enough documentation can be created before a language goes extinct, a language can be revitalized. Hebrew is a remarkable story of the revival of a language. Long considered a “dead” language — a language not used in daily speaking — Hebrew continued to survive as a written language for study from 2nd century CE until approximately the 1900s. It was revived when the international Jewish community began to converge in Palestine and Israel and needed a linguistic common ground to communicate. Today, Hebrew is spoken by 9.3 million people worldwide. The video below shares more about the actions taken to revitalize the language, like creating an all-Hebrew newspaper and teaching Hebrew in schools so that it could then be transferred to the home.
Much can be done to prevent a language from disappearing, depending on the stage of endangerment. One of the most important ways that languages can be revitalized is through institutional policies that promote education in the mother tongue as well as respect for minority languages. In New Zealand, Māori became one of the country’s three official languages in 1987, and the language is taught through full immersion preschools as well as in some primary and secondary schools. In areas like Alaska, where languages like Eyak are critically endangered, there are so few speakers left to sustain a language that the next course of action is to record the language. In these scenarios, linguists and researchers race to record, translate, document and archive as much of a language as possible so that it, and knowledge of it, is not permanently lost. When this documentation is carried out, it becomes possible to one day bring the language and its cultural and ecological knowledge back to life.
In addition, linguists have technical expertise that can help communities working to preserve their languages. Activities might include techniques for building word lists, strategies for developing language curriculum, and other documentation work that can better maintain a language for revival. And now that it’s much easier to access recording equipment than it was in the 1960s, recording oral histories is also a much more manageable task. In the following video, watch the late scholar and long-time director of the Alaska Native Language Center Michael E. Krauss speak with one of the last speakers of the Alaskan Eyak language about their word for “hello.”
Amara Subtitling Software Supports Indigenous Language Revitalization Efforts
#IYIL2019 has been an incredible year of appreciation and engagement around the world for the revitalization of indigenous languages. Amara recognizes the impact that communications technologies can have for reversing language loss and strengthening linguistic diversity, particularly in terms of integrating the languages into contemporary everyday living, like the arts, video and media. To this end, subtitling videos in indigenous languages can have a tremendous effect on increasing the number of opportunities language learners have to practice and retain the language. To help make this possible, Amara is always adding more indigenous languages to its subtitle editor. As of October 2019, Amara’s free subtitle editor and web-based video translation software supports subtitle translation into 99 indigenous languages, including:
(As of 10/2019)
| Abkhazian (Abkhaz)
Cook Islands Māori
Nahuatl, Northern Puebla
Tzotzil Venustiano Carranza
If you are working to revitalize an indigenous language and would like to be able to use the Amara subtitle editor to create subtitles and translations, contact firstname.lastname@example.org with a request to add support for that language in our software. You can view the most current list of languages available on Amara to see if yours is already available. If possible, please share a bit about the language you’d like to add in the request — additional details help us identify opportunities to support your work.
In addition to providing support for indigenous languages in our technologies, our parent organization, Participatory Culture Foundation (PCF), partners with the nonprofit group Wikitongues to further strengthen indigenous language revitalization efforts.
Wikitongues, founded in 2014, is a global nonprofit community of over 1,000 volunteers working to ensure every person has the tools to preserve, promote, and pass their languages on to the next generation. In addition to distributing accessible frameworks for language preservation, we’re building a public archive of oral histories in every language in the world. Wikitongues collects language samples and by default publishes them with Creative Commons licenses in order to allow for public reuse of videos for cultural, educational, and other noncommercial purposes. The organization is powered by a global network of thousands of volunteers.
In the 3-minute Wikitongues video below, have a sample listen of the indigenous language Afrikaans:
Strengthening Indigenous Languages on the Web
There is a wealth of resources on the Internet for language enthusiasts and supporters. Here are just a few projects and websites that celebrate and/or support language preservation efforts: the Endangered Languages Project, 7,000 Languages, the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, and the Language and Culture radio shows from Cultural Survival. The Endangered Languages Project provides readers with a wealth of research and educational materials. It also offers teaching guides for anyone focused on revitalizing a language as well as a discussion forum for advice and best practices. 7,000 Languages is a nonprofit that provides language-learning software and training for indigenous, minority and refugee communities that are working to save their languages. The Language and Culture podcasts from Cultural Survival, a nonprofit based in Cambridge, MA, highlight different mother tongues and also discusses broader themes around the need to protect and revitalize indigenous languages. The Living Tongues Institute offers talking dictionaries from around the world for endangered indigenous languages, including from India and Latin America. These dictionaries make it possible for speakers who only know a local dominant language to learn an endangered language and for fluent speakers of an indigenous language to teach others their mother tongue.
In Asia, the nonprofit Polyglot Indonesia is active both locally and online. With its many islands, Indonesia is home to dozens of indigenous languages. Polyglot Indonesia, headquartered in Jakarta, with 10 chapters throughout the archipelago started its Indonesian-based activities in 2013 as a community for language enthusiasts with the aim to support language practice in a fun and relaxed environment. The organization facilitates information exchange on language and culture and serves as a networking platform for all its members, regardless of nationality. Polyglot has initiated Language Exchange meet-ups in six cities: Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Aceh, Surabaya, and Semarang. Participants in these events represent a wide variety of backgrounds and age: school children, high-school students, and university students to entrepreneurs, researchers, and working professionals.
Learn more about Polyglot Indonesia’s work and mission in this interview (subtitled in English and Indonesian):
If you know of other websites that are doing some great things to protect indigenous languages and revitalize languages, please share them with us in the comments! We’d love to hear about these other websites and what they are doing to support langauge revitalization efforts.
Among multinational corporations, Google has also been making some inroads toward strengthening linguistic diversity. One initiative was a collaboration with the Cherokee Nation to add support for the Cherokee language on Google Search and Gmail, and this year, to coincide with the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the company launched a new Google Earth tour, titled “Celebrating Indigenous Languages.” It includes audio samples from different parts of the world recorded from more than 50 indigenous language speakers (for mobile viewers, it might be better to wait until using a laptop or equivalent, the tour requires a sizable amount of data to load before the tour can begin).
Through UNESCO, an Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is available and allows anyone to search different regions of the world and discover which ones are most at risk. The International Year of Indigenous Languages website itself has many statistics, resources, a registration page for individuals and groups to participate and organize local events to join the initiative and help raise awareness, and an events page full of IYIL2019 activities happening around the world. The calendar includes exhibitions, film screenings, symposiums and seminars, among other events.
Indigenous languages offer us deep knowledge about human culture, history, and ecology; they teach us about the boundless potential of how the human mind functions and of the historical human experience in the world. Languages are something that makes us uniquely human. And to that end, language vitality and diversity reflect a thriving, global society. Let’s make it happen!