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Why Preserve Endangered and Indigenous Languages?

United Nations flags

The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed 2019 as the “International Year of Indigenous Languages,” or IYIL, to raise awareness for the world’s disappearing Indigenous languages. But what are Indigenous languages, and why preserve them?

What is an Indigenous Language?

When referring to languages or peoples, the word ‘Indigenous’ doesn’t merely mean “native to or naturally occurring in a place.” Rather, the United Nations describes Indigenous peoples as “inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.”

The cultures passed down within these groups serve as repositories of tradition, and the languages themselves sometimes interpret and express meaning in intricate and relatively unusual ways. Protecting them is exigent; by definition, these people coexist with more dominant societies that often stifle, at times intentionally, their distinct cultural identity.

What is IYIL?

The objective of IYIL 2019 is to bolster and promote the languages spoken by Indigenous peoples in the face of these challenges, and raise awareness as to the importance of the knowledge and heritage they contain. The sad fact is, many if not most of these languages are in real danger of disappearing forever.

According to UNESCO, nearly half of the world’s estimated 7000 languages will likely cease to be spoken in the next hundred years. This mass extinction of about 3000 languages is a bone-chilling prospect, and in order to sound the alarm, multiple organizations have deemed these languages “endangered.”

UNESCO has a six-degree scale that ranks living, endangered languages from vulnerablethose still spoken by children, but only in the hometo critically endangeredthose only spoken by the grandparent generation, and they use it infrequently. UNESCO’s website includes an impressive online atlas of the languages in jeopardy.

The Ethnologue has a 13-degree scale of endangerment which makes finer distinctions. These take into account whether a language is supported by a national or official status, or whether it is used in an education systemboth of which can contribute to language longevity. Regardless of the agency or the scale, the defining factor of language endangerment is whether children continue to learn the language at home.

In addition to the wealth of cultural heritage, the value each language contributes to the field of Linguistics is immeasurable. As linguists try to explore and explain how language works in the brain, each and every language provides a perspective and datapoint totally equal in weight to that of any other. In this way, all languages are equal; the number of speakers, geographic range, or their use in affluent population centers or otherwise is entirely irrelevant. Therefore, even the loss of a single language is lamentable to linguists and linguaphiles alike.

What can we do?

The Linguistic Society of America describes the status of Indigenous languages in North America as “typical.” Only eight of the approximately 165 Indigenous languages are spoken by more than 10,000 people, while 75 are in grave danger.

The situation, though grim, is by no means hopeless.

Indigenous communities across North America and beyond have been continually putting in the long hours of effort to revitalize their heritage languages. There are countless language departments and programs that teach tribal citizens the complexities of their language and provide them the space to practice and hone their communication skills. Immersion schools, bilingual head-start programs, and adult education classes are essential to laying a foundational speaking population. Master-Apprentice Programs are also effective, though demanding. These programs partner an elder fluent speaker with an apprentice, who spend long hours together and work to document and teach the apprentice the language. All of the above are implemented in hopes of achieving the ultimate goal: passing the language on to the next generation.

What Mango is doing to help

We’re continually refining our courses, as well as adding new ones. Stay tuned for the latest addition to our endangered languages’ collection — Potawatomi!

Our team has been working closely with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians in Dowagiac, Michigan to build a Potawatomi language course. If you’d like to learn about the fascinating language where place names like Chicago, Wisconsin, and Michigan come from, check back in a couple of weeks. 

And remember, of Mango’s 70+ language courses, nine are endangered languages spoken by Indigenous communities. As a sign of our commitment to promoting these languages, these courses are always offered free of charge to our users. The list of courses includes Cherokee, Tuvan, Hawaiian, Chaldean, Scottish Gaelic, and more.

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Jill Peck
Written by Jill Peck

Jill Peck is a linguist for Mango Languages. Her fields of expertise include Sino-Tibetan languages and Phonology.

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