Disclaimer: In this article, I will use both “native language” and “Indigenous language” in reference to the same thing. Some folks prefer one or the other; for this reason, I use both. The definition of these terms is a language that is generationally from a particular place and was not brought in by a colonialist language (European languages like English, Spanish, Portuguese, French– also Russian and Mandarin).
Why Do Native/Indigenous Languages Matter?
For speakers of Indigenous languages, as well as linguists dedicated to conserving and revitalizing such languages, this question an unfortunately (and very infuriatingly) common one. Understanding the importance of native languages means knowing its history; and by knowing its history, one understands its increasing importance for our future.
It’s generally accepted among the linguistic community that there are more or less 7,100 languages in the world. Interestingly, the more biodiverse a particular area in the world, the more diverse its languages. So that means most native languages are in the Americas (especially Central and South), Central Africa, the Himalayas, and Southeast Asia into Australia and Polynesia.
The great majority of languages spoken in the world are oral, meaning they lack a written aspect (also known as orthography). In fact, according to Ethnologue, almost half of the world’s languages still have no orthography. Oral languages have been often referred to as “primitive” or other such similar phrase, but this racist rhetoric is far from the truth.
The truth is that native languages are extremely sophisticated. Indigenous languages are by far more grammatically complex and intricate than colonialist languages like English. These grammatical intricacies (known to linguists as inflections, morphemes, etc) are like little pockets of information. Let’s use suffixes as an example. English has suffixes that describe when the verb happens (cook-ed, read-ing, sing-s); Spanish uses suffixes to describe when the verb happens and its subject (soñ-aste, volver-emos). Many native languages have suffixes that describe when it happened, in what direction, if the subject is a man or a woman or an animal, if it happened to a person or a thing, with an object… that’s so much information in a very tiny amount of language. Hardly “primitive.”
Think about everything that English can explain. It has words to describe its own history, knowledge, philosophies, religion, sciences like biology, technology, geography; music, poetry, even politics and relationships. Think about all that, but in Spanish. Different history, different knowledge, different poetry. Or Japanese… Or Quechua (South America), or Walpiri (Northern Australia), or Miwok (California). Whoa.
Each of those languages have a ton of knowledge. And that’s an astronomical amount of human knowledge in all those languages combined. But what happens when a language disappears? How much of that knowledge lost? Why are these languages ‘disappearing’ anyway?
To put it simply: colonialism and capitalism.
- Disease, both as an intentional and unintentional consequence of early colonization. It’s accepted among native and academic communities that diabetes is a modern-day colonialist disease.
- Genocide and war. The remaining Maya codices are a miraculous example of a native language that survived linguicide (although linguists are still working to decode this extremely intricate orthography). All the other written language materials of the Mayan empire were burned and destroyed by 16th century Spanish Catholic priests.
- Forced assimilation. Most dormant Native American languages were wiped out by forced assimilation and banning language itself – ever heard about the boarding schools for Native American children?
- “Capitalist” languages. These days, people stop speaking their native language and use a more capitalist language to find work– English, Spanish, French, Portuguese… and this makes it harder for the language to transfer to the next generation.
- Displacement. As a consequence of capitalist ventures in native lands, many Indigenous families have to move out of their homelands and into nearby cities and sometimes even other countries as refugees.
- Imperialist laws. Just like Native Americans themselves, native languages have historically been made illegal by the imperialist countries that take over their lands.
There is not a whole lot of infrastructure for teaching Native American languages. A pretty big reason for this educational gap is because until 1990, native languages here in the United States were illegal.
Here in California, even until the 1950’s, languages were illegal to be spoken in a classroom, or else students would face extreme punishments and abuse. It wasn’t until the 1990’s when the US Congress passed the Native American Languages Act, which gave Native Americans the right to speak, teach and learn their own languages. In a land that has been historically under the care of these native languages for thousands of years, it’s unbelievable that only in the past 20 years were they given the right to be taught and spoken. The movie The Land Before Time is older than that.
“But native languages are a thing of the past– why can’t we just move forward with English?”
That is one of the most harmful (and common) arguments in defense of linguicide. The truth is, we as humanity depend on the survival of Indigenous languages and their communities. If we fail to empower Indigenous languages, knowledge, and their communities, we will spin deeper into environmental problems.
I like to imagine the planet as a giant ship, and humanity is the crew that keeps it flying safely through the cosmos. There are different roles like that of a ship: the navigators to map out where we are and where we’re going, cooks to feed everyone, doctors to keep everyone healthy, etc. Each job has its own vernacular, and without that specialized language, it would be impossible for these roles to function. I imagine languages themselves as these roles. Every time we lose a language, it’s like losing an important member of our crew.
Indigenous languages have extremely sophisticated knowledge regarding the ecology it was born from. This knowledge is passed down generationally, which the communities use to take care of the land (known in academic circles as Traditional (Ecological) Knowledge, or TK/TEK). Time and time again it has been proven that when a native language is compromised, the environment it came from also suffers. For example, the Amuesha language community concluded that their language loss has negatively impacted the diversity of their food plants. Thankfully, there are grassroots, indigenous-led organizations like Saphichay that specifically focus on revitalizing native languages and the ecological knowledge they carry.
Language loss is both a human rights issue and an environmental issue. And through the ripples of the globally interconnected web of life, it affects us all.
For this reasons and more, it is more important than ever to revitalize native languages. Even if you will never learn a single one of the Indigenous languages of the world, your consciousness and support of the global movement of language revitalization and Indigenous Rights already has a significant role.