The United Nations has declared 2019 to be the Year of Indigenous Languages, and will support a number of functions and movements related to this theme this year.
Anthropologists have taken an interest in indigenous languages since almost the beginning of the discipline’s establishment. Views and techniques for studying these languages have evolved, and the issue of preserving and promoting indigenous languages and the rights of the people who speak them has become prioritized.
Here is what you need to know about the 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages, from a general anthropological perspective.
What Does Indigenous Mean?
To put it very simply, indigenous generally means “of the land.” Indigenous peoples are the original inhabitants of their land, and indigenous languages are their way of communicating.
The actual definition of “indigenous peoples” is a bit more complicated, but there are some generally agreed upon characteristics. Indigenous groups usually have a separate and distinct culture from the other racial/ethnic groups in their area, and this culture is usually based in a very old historical connection to the land they inhabit (see this page by Cultural Survival). Many indigenous groups have been victims of colonization and cultural oppression by other groups.
Some examples of indigenous peoples include the tribes of North America (Apache, Navajo, Cherokee, Sioux, and many, many more), the Maya people in modern-day Mexico, and the Maori people of what is now New Zealand. There are thousands of different indigenous groups around the world, speaking more than 4,000 indigenous languages, according to the UN.
Why Are Indigenous Languages Important?
There are many reasons why indigenous languages are important, not only to anthropologists, but to us as human beings. Indigenous languages carry with them cultural ideas and knowledge that are difficult to express otherwise; they represent cultural pride and empowerment for native speakers. When a language dies, cultural knowledge and way of life dies with it.
Indigenous languages are often characterized as relics of the past, but this idea is largely untrue. Although many indigenous languages are dying out due to lack of new speakers, many are still very relevant and frequently used today.
The Difference Between Documenting a Language and Promoting a Language
Anthropologists and other social scientists often seek to document dying languages through tools such as language archives and databases. This is an important task, as it ensures that a language, as it exists in that moment, can always be remembered as time goes by. Language archives are vital as historical records and can potentially be used as a resource for people who want to learn an indigenous language. Creating records such as these is often the most well-known and discussed effort in the fight to preserve dying languages.
However, simply documenting a language can be equivalent to putting it in a museum. Through this process, a language is often accepted as being an artifact, and no longer significant in modern times. If one wishes to truly preserve and promote a language for future generations, a different approach may be needed.
Language Revitalization Efforts
Language revitalization is the promotion of indigenous and/or dying languages in everyday life. Perhaps the most important process of language revitalization is creating new speakers, so that the language can continue to be passed down through generations. This approach may involve fostering the use of the language in public or community settings and teaching the language in schools. It can also include the creation of communication and entertainment resources in that language.
Language revitalization efforts exists around the world, with various levels of resources and government/institutional support. In the U.S., programs and legislation exist to allocate funding towards documenting and teaching Native American languages (see this page by the Linguistic Society of America). How these programs will persist and how effective they are is something I would need to research further to discuss.
The UN’s Efforts to Preserve Indigenous Languages
The UN has included multiple sections in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to promote access to education, vocational and other resources for indigenous people (see declarations 23, 25, and 52, as well as goal 4).
The UN’s proclamation of 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Lanugages is to promote the issues facing indigenous speakers and the efforts to preserve their languages.
You can follow the official Twitter account for the International Year of Indigenous Languages at @IYIL2019.
To explore a huge, open-source archive of languages from researchers across the globe, visit the Open Language Archives Community (OLAC) at language-archives.org.
To learn more about all types of languages from all over the world, visit Ethnologue.com, an online language encyclopedia.