Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Vanishing Voices

Quechua woman and child,
Andes, Peru
The International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples is the 9th of August. A version of this post also appears in the August 2023 issue of the Azim Premji University newsletter Forests of Life.

The Esperanto version of the essay is called "Made-to-disappear voices" ("Malaperigataj voĉoj"). The Esperanto title makes clear that these Indigenous languages are not vanishing  "voluntarily" - they are being made to disappear! Read on....

Imagine that you speak the following languages:

• You can have 13 consonants in a row! The Salishian language Nuxalk (pron. nuhalk), spoken in British Columbia in Canada, has the word clhp'xwlhtlhplhhskwts', which means "then he had had in his possession a bunchberry plant". Do tell us: how do you pronounce that word?! ("Nuxalk", Wikipedia)

• You don't say "my left arm". Instead, you say "my north / south / east / or west arm", depending on your actual orientation! Speakers Warlpiri in Central Australia use the cardinal directions; an absolute frame of reference. (Levinson and Wilkins, 2006)

• You must use one of 10 genders! The Yuchi in Oklahoma, USA, use "six [genders] for Yuchi people (depending on kinship relationships to the speaker), one for non-Yuchis and animals, and three for inanimate objects (horizontal, vertical and round )"! (The Guardian, 2008)

Those are just three of the strange and wonderful (for me!) world-descriptions from the approximately 7000 languages ​​of the world. And these are vanishing voices - we are making these Indigenous languages disappear! This article explores why this is happening, what we are losing, and one definite "must-do".

Half of the world speaks
these 25 languages.

Half of the world speaks one of 25 major languages: Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Bengali.... The other 50% speak all the other 6975 or so languages! So, there are a lot of small languages in the world. For example, Aiton (1500 speakers), Muot (930), Zangskari (12,000) - all three are Indigenous languages ​​from India. (Do also remember that we only have approximate numbers for many Indigenous languages - they just aren't important enough!)

All over the world, these small languages ​​have been in contact with the larger ones around them. However, historically, rarely has this contact been peaceful. Speakers of big languages ​​have come with modern weapons in search of slaves, natural resources, and land. Indigenous peoples who survived (many, many were killed) have had to abandon their language and culture (along with their land). This continues. Their children are forbidden to speak their languages ​​in school, and the government and the courts do not speak their languages ​​either. With no alternative, speakers of Indigenous languages shift to dominant languages. This is why the shift is not "voluntary". It is no wonder that of the 424 languages ​​spoken in India (according to Ethnologue), 131 are "Endangered", that is, "it is no longer the norm for children to learn and use this language".

Places of high biodiversity are also
places of high linguistic diversity.
What do we lose when we lose a language? As our initial examples show, each language is a unique way of looking at the world. But here's another thing: look at the places of high biodiversity in the world; for example, Papua New Guinea (839), Indonesia (704), Arunachal Pradesh (90). The figures in parentheses are the number of languages ​​spoken there. Biodiversity diversity correlates with linguistic diversity! The biocultural link is that the knowledge to sustainably take care of this biodiversity is encoded in these Indigenous languages. So, even for purely "selfish" reasons, the world must ensure that Indigenous languages ​​flourish.

It's also an ethical question, is it not? Linguistic human rights are as important as other rights. And the freedom to practice one's own culture includes its languages. Plus it is also about education. Tons of research (as well as common sense!) tells us that children learn best in the language they know best. Depriving a child of that is cognitive violence! For society, the cost is twofold. One, repeated years, dropping out of school, and low economic productivity - a massive waste of resources! And two, poorly prepared citizens for democratic participation - perhaps an even more serious cost!

So what should we do? Many things need to be done, but clearly education has to be one of our starting points. Bringing mother tongues ​​into education will make all education more effective. This will revitalize Indigenous languages ​​as languages ​​of modern knowledge. Meanwhile, their speakers will continue to take pride in their cultural heritage. However, in addition to learning in their own languages, children also need high-quality teaching in the other languages ​​they need to know - the regional language and English, for example. This idea is at the core of Mother-Tongue Based Multilingual Education (Mohanty et al., 2009).

In itself, that proposal is not enough. The rights of Indigenous peoples need to be strengthened in many other domains as well. But whatever strategy society adopts, education should be among its main components. Only then will there be generations who will continue to marvel at these diverse ways of being human!


Levinson, S. C. and Wilkins, D. P. (eds.) 2006. Grammars of Space: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. Cambridge.

Mohanty, A. K., Panda, M., Phillipson, R., Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (eds.) 2009. Multilingual Education for Social Justice: Globalising the Local. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan.

The Guardian, “Peter K Austin's top 10 endangered languages”. 27 August.

Wikipedia. “Nuxalk”.