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Part 2: Indigenous languages are important but are they useful?

2 May 2012

In the second of two blogs reporting from the Expert Seminar on Indigenous Peoples’ Languages and Cultures, Daniel Openshaw, MRG’s Publications Intern, questions why destruction of intangible culture is often overlooked and what incentive exists to learn an indigenous language. Read the first part here.

When the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001 it sparked international outcry. This was an act of intolerance by a global enemy. The buddhas were massive, tangible representations of Greco-Buddhist art and key examples of 6th century engineering. It was indisputably a cultural disaster. But according to UNESCO’s endangered languages programme, half of the 6000 languages spoken today, will be lost by the end of the century.

Academics and NGO representatives listen to a panel of experts discussing Indigenous Peoples’ rights to languages and cultures.

Last month I attended the Expert Seminar on Indigenous Peoples’ Language and Cultures at Brunel University. Javier Sanchez, one of the speakers and Director of the National Institute for Indigenous Languages in Mexico, asked participants to imagine how they would feel if they woke up tomorrow and were told that they were not able to use the language they had learned from their parents. This is a situation affecting thousands of indigenous people daily and will inevitably exacerbate UNESCO’s predictions. Is this not a cultural disaster equal to the dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan?

In my last blog I discussed the importance of preserving and promoting cultural rights (including linguistic rights) and the inseparability of these with land rights. I finished by noting how the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled in favour of the indigenous Endorois in Kenya based on cultural integrity, but how the definition of this term did not include peoples’ right to language. Language and culture are obviously interlinked, but at the seminar Dr Mark Harris of Adelaide University highlighted that they must be seen as individual rights. In some cases of Aboriginal land rights in Australia, land claims are embedded in language and the lack of indigenous languages has led to restrictions on land rights.

An Ampilatwatja elder sets up camp in the bush to demand their rights to land and self-determination. Credit: Rusty Stewart

This is a recurring issue throughout the seminar. Language rights are important, we were sitting in a room full of people who understood this importance, but not everybody does. Referring to my previous question regarding whether the loss of language is akin to the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the lack of public concern on this issue would suggest not. There is both opposition to and, more dangerously, widespread apathy towards indigenous languages. It is possible that we will be able to preserve them (in the history books) but promoting them will be much more difficult. What is the incentive?

Indigenous languages are important, but are they useful? Major world languages are useful; of the UN’s 6 working languages, French is the international language, English is the international language of business and Chinese is hot on its heels whilst Spanish, Arabic and Russian are spoken across many states. There is a real incentive to spend a lot of time and effort learning these languages. At the seminar it was addressed that learning an indigenous language as either a second language or alongside a first helps the learning of third, fourth and fifth languages, but still, this might seem an unnecessary hurdle to someone who wants to learn a language as a gateway to opportunity. The problem of incentive is not limited to non-indigenous people. In Norway, perhaps through past forced assimilation but nevertheless, the Saami are integrated into Norwegian society, in the main speak Norwegian as their first language and feel they have no need to learn Saami. They lack incentive.

When I introduced this question of incentive at the seminar Dr Harris suggested that it was simply a question of securing the right for indigenous communities to learn- or not to learn- their mother tongue and for wider society to recognize this right.  Incentive to choose to learn as opposed to not learn came in the form of responsibility. At the heart of the matter this is true. It does come down to a sense of pride in one’s language and responsibility to promote its longevity. But is this enough? People have a responsibility to throw litter in the bin in order to protect and promote the visual appeal of their environment, but not everybody does. Responsibility can be a strong incentive and can be used to persuade people to act in a certain way – look at Mao’s China – but in terms of learning a language and the considerable dedication involved, I’m not sure it’s enough (definitely not outside of indigenous communities) to learn an indigenous language.

Javier Sanchez gave a more optimistic answer to the question of incentive. He recounted how there used to be no incentive to learn one of Mexico’s 364 linguistic variants. However since a change in legislation to promote indigenous languages in 1993 there are now intercultural universities, indigenous media broadcasts and the use of indigenous language in civic and public life. Perhaps this is the incentive people need both within and outside of indigenous communities. If, for example court hearings were heard in Saami, then there would be demand for Saami speaking lawyers. If there were Innu TV channels then there would be demand for Innu-aimun speaking presenters. Dr Sheila Aikmen of the University of East Anglia also suggested that bilingual education, which is fairly widespread, should be available to all, not just indigenous peoples, as this in itself can be marginalizing.

The Expert Seminar and work of the Expert Mechanism are indications that the cultural and linguistic rights of indigenous peoples need to become more prominent. In my view, incentive is the key and it is slowly emerging. A new law is going through the motions in Ukraine that would allow court cases to be heard in minority languages, such as Crimean-Tatar; this is just one example cited in this year’s ‘State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples’ to be launched in June. Destruction of language is in large a passive process towards an intangible culture. Bringing the issue to the international stage is an optimistic beginning but there is a long way to go before it is seen in the same way as active destruction of tangible culture.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.