The 9th of August marks International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This occasion is dedicated to raising awareness and encouraging recognition of indigenous identities, rights, and traditions. Although indigenous communities comprise less than 5% of the world’s total population, they account for 15% of the world’s poorest peoples – in part due to the centuries-long violation of their rights to self-governance and resource control, as well as low levels of education, limited access to public amenities and services, and limited participation in larger political spheres. While their ways of life are steeped in age-old tradition and often embrace beliefs and practices distinct from those of dominant modern-day societies, there is much to be learnt from indigenous cultures. Knowledge that may soon be lost.
Indigenous principles and history tend to be imparted through predominantly oral traditions, with little written records. This history is thus put at risk by the fact that many of the languages in which these archives exist solely in oral format are dying out. The United Nations estimates that the 476 million indigenous people living across 90 countries speak the vast majority of the world’s approximate 7,000 languages. Of all the languages spoken worldwide, current data indicates that at least 40% face some degree of endangerment. Although reliable research about indigenous languages is often hard to come by, it is widely agreed that they are particularly vulnerable to eventual extinction due to their lack of official status and the subsequent fact that they are not taught in schools or used in any official public capacity, even in areas where they are the dominant spoken languages.
In order to address this threat, the years 2022 to 2032 are to follow in 2019’s footsteps as the International Year of Indigenous Languages and have been designated as the decade of indigenous languages. This initiative promotes indigenous peoples’ rights to freedom of expression, education in their mother tongue, and participation in public life using their languages, as this is a prerequisite to the survival of these languages. This endeavour also calls for greater use of indigenous languages in the justice system, the media, and health and labour programmes, in an effort to keep the languages alive through greater use in the public sector.
At the same time, organisations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) are sponsoring projects dedicated to the digitisation of indigenous languages from all over the world in the hope of aiding language revitalisation. At present, 99% of all content on the internet is written in one of only 35 languages. Beyond this representing only an iota of all languages spoken globally, a further 66% of this written content is presented solely in English – a language spoken by only 18% of the modern world. This overrepresentation of English at the expense of other low-resource languages has a direct effect on the survival of these languages, as it affects people’s media consumption as well as broader audience exposure and awareness.
While language revival was a far more difficult process to initiate before the advent of the internet, there are still certain areas of difficulty in digitising indigenous languages which do not exist in written form. The internet’s penchant for multimodal media certainly offers a means of overcoming these pitfalls, but the costs and resources required for linguistic preservation in this format are exponentially greater. There is hope, however, as the upcoming Decade of Indigenous Languages, and initiatives such as those facilitated through NEH grants prove that society is indeed socially, academically and financially invested in the preservation and revitalisation of indigenous languages.
As was disseminated during 2019’s International Year of Indigenous Languages agenda:
“Languages play a crucial role in the daily lives of people, not only as a tool for communication, education, social integration, and development, but also as a repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions and memory.”
It is thus essential that we fight back against the alarming rate at which indigenous languages around the world continue to disappear. By thwarting this mass linguistic extinction, we not only benefit those who speak these languages, and their cultural and traditional identities, but we also create future opportunities for others who may not know these languages to discover their existence and come to appreciate the important role they play within our culturally diverse world.