The value of indigenous and rare languages

In 1994, the UN General Assembly announced a resolution that on the 9th of August each year, we will observe the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. In this article we explore the importance of indigenous languages.


On the 21st of May 2021, we celebrated the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. What connects the two dates is simple yet incredibly important - without indigenous languages and a recognition of their importance, effort to maintain them - not as a chapter in a book on anthropology or linguistics, but in an active and vibrant way - we have no chance of cultural diversity. 


‍We have a mixed bag of results when you look at the efforts to preserve the culture of indigenous peoples and their languages. The overall trend is that they are in decline, as illustrated in our article on the indigenous languages of Brazil, with the COVID pandemic exacerbating this trend. There are instances where we can see some success, for example in Bolivia which through the election of an indigenous president, made a strong case for the protection of indigenous people’s rights including their languages. In other places like Peru, this is not so evident and we have a natural decline of indigenous languages such as Kakataibo with around 1553 speakers.



There are plenty of examples of attempts to save indigenous languages, one of which is the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme. This is a joint effort of Arcadia Fund and SOAS University London to provide grants that enable individuals to document endangered languages. We also have proactive approaches to popularize rare languages, as shown by an example of a Ph.D. student in African Language Studies whose Ph.D. thesis was written in ChiShona (a Bantu Language) at Rhodes University. 


This was the first thesis written in  ChiShona, despite the fact that about 75% of Zimbabweans speak the language. It can be considered very fortunate when you compare it to the Kakataibo language in Peru but at the same time, shows that there is a lot of work to be done, and the rarer the language, the more difficult this work will be. The global pandemic certainly makes things more difficult but there have been some positive case studies with African volunteers introducing new terms such as “facemask” or “hand sanitizer” into iziZulu, to protect the vulnerable from the pandemic. Without such efforts, indigenous populations would most likely suffer even greater loss of lives.



‍‍Loss of indigenous languages means a loss of identity and a loss of an opportunity to learn about humanity and its history. Without indigenous languages, we are left with knowledge gaps, so it’s important to protect and write about languages such as Kakataibo, Purubora, Itelmen and thousands of others. It is equally important for speakers of rare languages such as Abkhaz, Yiddish and Shona to ensure that these are preserved and don’t perish in the future. The only way to accomplish this is to teach younger generations, publish in, and about these languages and conduct research.


‍Embracing cultural diversity to foster dialogue and development entails working towards the preservation of rare languages and the protection of the endangered ones. After all, if we consider ourselves to be the champions of human rights, going out to the indigenous communities and understanding their needs will require our understanding of them - not the other way round. This is the only way we can provide help effectively and foster their development in peace and through dialogue. Protecting indigenous languages is key to such dialogue and will be absolutely essential on the path to achieving Sustainable Development Goals. It is therefore essential in the effort to guarantee all communities an equal opportunity for freedom and prosperity.



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