Why indigenous languages are dying

A Silent Crisis: Understanding Why Indigenous Languages are Disappearing

Maureen Mitchells Uncategorized

According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, indigenous peoples make up less than 6% of the world’s total population but speak more than 4,000 of our estimated 6,700 languages. This staggering statistic puts into perspective the extremely small pools of native speakers currently keeping many indigenous languages alive. It highlights the inherent fragility of thousands of languages around the globe.

If your native language is a dominant international language, the threat of it going extinct may seem remote. But today, one indigenous language dies permanently every two weeks. A multitude of languages exist in a vulnerable, threatened state (in Canada alone, more than 40 indigenous languages had 500 speakers or less in 2016). More than half of the world’s languages are considered to be at risk of dying out before the end of the 21st century.

Why Should We Care?

For all the same reasons we should care that species are becoming extinct or we are losing native habitats or extinguishing biodiversity on a daily basis! 

Indigenous languages represent infinitely more than a simple means of communication. Innate within them are the cultures, histories, and world views of the people who have spoken them throughout time. Stories, songs, prayers, and poetry in native tongues express shared ways of thinking, interacting, and being that define, enliven, and bind cultures together. When an indigenous language becomes endangered, the heritage and identity of the people who have spoken that language are inevitably also in peril.

Loss of languages also means the loss of traditional understanding of native plants, subtle relationships to the environment, generational knowledge of plants to treat illnesses and diseases. 

As a leader in the languages services industry, by the very nature of its services, CanTalk is proud to be at the forefront to help preserve and revitalize indigenous languages throughout Canada and internationally.The United Nations recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples to revitalize, use, develop, and transmit their languages to future generations, and the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2022-2023 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages

At CanTalk, we are committed to opening channels of communication while actively honouring and connecting indigenous language speakers around the globe. Our language services offer a natural platform for education and reconciliation.  

Indigenous languages are losing ground…what does it all mean?

Historical Context

Languages and cultures have risen, evolved, and naturally died out since the dawn of time. So, what distinguishes the current threats facing indigenous languages from the threats that have faced certain languages at so many other points throughout history?

The sheer speed and global nature of indigenous language loss at this moment in time is unparalleled and unprecedented. Thousands of indigenous languages are currently facing the risk of permanent extinction across the world, and meaningful action must be taken to develop and implement effective preservation and revitalization strategies before it’s too late.

Why Languages Die in the First Place

Languages can die out for a multitude of different reasons. Throughout history, these have included:

  • Geopolitical events such as wars or changes in government
  • Mass migrations
  • Natural disasters that have wiped out or isolated populations
  • Assimilation (organic or forced)

Historically, languages have often evolved or died out relatively slowly as bilingualism becomes prevalent in a society followed by successive generations of speakers losing proficiency in their traditional language. This model of language evolution and loss is still prevalent today, but often at a much faster rate.

 Let’s take a closer look at some of these reasons:

Many factors currently jeopardize the vitality of indigenous languages around the globe. Some of the most significant include:

  • Forced Assimilation – In Canada, as well as in many other countries around the world, indigenous communities have faced (or are still facing) forced assimilation efforts that have actively separated them from their traditional knowledge, language, and ways of being. Multi-generational trauma rooted in colonial policies has tragically affected many indigenous populations, many of whom are now looking for ways to reclaim and preserve indigenous languages.
  • Lack of Opportunities and Services – When dominant languages are prioritized in education systems, health systems, job markets, businesses, governments, and more, speaking an indigenous language instead can actually become an obstacle to accessing opportunities and necessary services in the non-indigenous world.  
  • Land Development – As indigenous peoples are increasingly separated from their traditional lands, the shared languages rooted in those places become fragmented.
  • Globalization – International languages dominate global communications. As the world becomes smaller, the ability to understand and communicate with people in different geographical regions, time zones, and countries has become increasingly essential.
  • Elders Passing On – As elders die, indigenous languages can be quickly lost if they haven’t been taught to younger generations.

At CanTalk, we are committed to opening channels of communication while actively honouring and connecting indigenous language speakers around the globe. Our language services offer a natural platform for education and reconciliation.  

What Efforts Could Help Preserve Languages? Good Question!

While some indigenous languages have already been lost, and many more are in serious peril, there’s still time to preserve and revitalize indigenous language usage and learning before it’s too late. Indigenous language revitalization looks different and must be tailored to each indigenous community’s specific needs and circumstances. That being said, here are some examples of indigenous language preservation strategies that are proving effective in many cases:

  • Government Initiatives – Governments have too often been responsible for exterminating indigenous languages and cultures. But there are also many ways they can do the opposite, including:
    • Granting indigenous languages official language status
    • Ensuring that indigenous language instruction is available at every level of education
    • Developing policies that support indigenous languages
    • Making official and essential services available in indigenous languages
  • Remote Learning Services – When indigenous language speakers have to leave their communities to receive post-secondary education, this removes them from their traditional cultures and ways of being. Remote learning opportunities that bring education to indigenous communities (instead of vice versa) can reduce or eliminate this issue altogether.
  • Creating Language Resources – Documenting indigenous languages for preservation so that they can be more easily taught is an essential element of keeping them alive.
  • High-Quality Language Services – When high-quality indigenous translations and language services are available for indigenous language speakers on-demand, language barriers can be effectively removed, and indigenous languages can continue to thrive alongside more dominant languages. CanTalk’s cutting-edge technology, support services, and network of trained and readily available indigenous language speakers can help.

There’s Hope!

Even though indigenous languages are facing unprecedented threats in today’s global society, there are substantial ways to preserve and revitalize them. 

The recipe is simple – a good portion of will mixed with collaborative effort.

By finding and fulfilling new ways to effectively bridge the gap between dominant and indigenous languages and cultures, together we can help make a difference. At CanTalk, we are committed to opening channels of communication while actively honouring and connecting indigenous language speakers across North America, around the globe. 

It goes without saying, yes, we have the experience and yes, we have the delivery technology. But it takes two to tango! Let us help define how best to support your requirements. Our language services offer a natural platform for both education, reconciliation and growth of all languages.  

Contact us at CanTalk today,  learn more about how we can assist!