The word will always flourish: How to keep the indigenous languages alive

More than 7,000 languages are spoken in the world, of which some 6,700 are indigenous languages: 40% of them are at risk of disappearing at an alarming rate.

The word will always flourish: How to keep the indigenous languages alive
How to keep the indigenous languages of Latin America and the Caribbean alive? Tatutsi Xuweri Timaiweme

Indigenous languages are an irreplaceable heritage for humanity and these cultural contributions represent a highly valuable heritage for society. They convey a millenary, heterogeneous, plural, rich and diverse story. Unfortunately, more than 40% of the approximately 6,700 indigenous languages currently spoken in the world are at risk of becoming extinct. And by disappearing, a unique feature of human history would be lost.

In this context of urgency, the United Nations declared the International Decade of Indigenous Languages from 2022 to 2032, to draw the world's attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote them, as well as to take urgent national and international action to protect them.

UNESCO has been designated by the UN as the lead agency to carry forward the planning of such a decade at the global level. To prepare a plan of action capable of materializing a real defense of languages in this decade, the first Regional Consultation for Latin America and the Caribbean, promoted by UNESCO, will be held on May 27 and 28, to identify regional priorities for the safeguarding of indigenous languages in the region.

The initiative aims to bring together a diverse range of actors, including representatives of national governments, indigenous peoples, social organizations, academics, and experts in the field of indigenous languages, to promote strategies and partnerships to promote and protect indigenous languages in the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.

A multidisciplinary approach will seek to identify regional priorities, including strategic objectives, results, areas of change, as well as regional flagship and pilot projects for the International Decade in Latin America and the Caribbean. But above all, the spirit of the consultation will be geared towards raising awareness of the importance of indigenous languages, linguistic diversity, and multilingualism for sustainable development. Forge partnerships and networks among various stakeholders for the establishment of a regional articulation of partners, national committees, and focal points for the Decade in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Generally, the loss of an indigenous language is due to assimilation, forced relocation, economic migration, illiteracy, poverty, exclusion, discrimination, and human rights violations of the communities that speak it. It is believed that modernity and globalization have accelerated the process of extinction and, likewise, the use of dominant languages in the world increasingly marginalizes the languages of minority peoples.

Mexico's indigenous languages against extinction

Akateko, amuzgo, awakateko, ayapaneco, cora, jakalteko, kaqchikel, kickapoo, tojolabal, totonaco, triqui, tzeltal, tsotsil, yaqui, zapoteco, and zoque are just some of the indigenous languages spoken in Mexican territory. Each one of them represents the testimony of a millenary cultural heritage that, when inherited from generation to generation, carries with it a complex cosmogony and a specific way of naming and thinking about the world.

In Mexico there are 11 groups of languages whose structural and lexical similarities share a common historical origin; that is, language families that are represented in the country with at least one of their languages. These language families are Algerian, Uto-Nahua, Cochimi-Human, Seri, Oto-Mangue, Mayan, Totonac-Tepehua, Tarascan, Mixe-Zoque, Oaxacan Chontal and Huave.

Mexico has speakers of 68 indigenous languages, which are respectively related to indigenous people. However, these languages are also linguistic groups, since they can be made up of groups of one or more linguistic variants.

A linguistic variant is a form of speech that has structural and lexical differences that make it particularly about other variants of the same linguistic grouping; in addition, each of the variants forms part of the identity of the speakers and differs from the sociolinguistic identity of those who speak other variants of the same linguistic grouping or language.

It is precisely by thinking of indigenous languages under these categories and schemes that we can understand the diversity of the linguistic reality of the country. By recognizing their differences, particularities, and sociolinguistic identities, we acknowledge that indigenous languages are neither unitary nor homogeneous, and the complexity of the social and linguistic components involved in the communication process is revealed.

Throughout the 32 entities that make up Mexico, 364 linguistic variants are spoken, which represent an important indicator of the enormous linguistic and cultural diversity of the country. According to INALI, these linguistic variants should be treated as languages concerning full access to justice and public services.

It is estimated that in Mexico there are 7.4 million people aged 3 and over who speak an indigenous language. The most widely spoken languages are Nahuatl, with 1,725,000 speakers, followed by Mayan, with more than 859,000, and Tzeltal, with 556,000.

Contrary to what is indicated by the contempt, stereotypes, and ignorance about indigenous peoples and their languages, the forms of speech of these communities are not homogeneous, should not be causes of social exclusion, nor do they represent states that do not adapt to hegemonic forms of communication. On the contrary, they are manifestations that give an account of Mexico's cultural richness and are considered national languages with the same validity as Spanish, regardless of the territories, locations, and contexts in which they are spoken; as well as their number of speakers.

Despite the obvious linguistic wealth that exists in Mexico, various social processes such as globalization, and the social marginalization to which indigenous people have been pushed, indigenous languages face the possibility of their extinction, as 60% of them are at risk of disappearing. Among the languages that are in extreme danger of extinction are Ku'ahl and Kiliwa from Baja California, Awakateko from Campeche, Mocho' from Chiapas, Ayapaneco from Tabasco, Nebajeño Ixil and Kaqchikel from Quintana Roo, Zapotec from Mixtepec, and Ixcateco and Zapotec from San Felipe Tejalápam from Oaxaca.

"Most of those who still speak them are people who live in situations of marginalization and poverty, often extreme. They and the fate of their languages depend largely on others. Only a few of them, who have managed to escape from precariousness and receive professional training, are today fighting alongside non-indigenous compatriots who share the concern for the fate of the original languages," said Miguel León-Portilla in his text The Fate of the Amerindian Languages, a document that shows that the disappearance of languages is a reality and that in the past many languages have died and with the knowledge that they are no longer.

He adds: "If biological diversity is a great treasure, cultural and linguistic diversity is even more so. Each language is like a watchtower that allows us to appreciate the whole universe with different approaches that bring us closer to it in many ways. The diversity of language variants contributes to opening up new paths to human thought, communication, and creativity. When a language dies, humanity is impoverished.

The reality faced by Mexico is the same as that experienced throughout the world. According to information from UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, at least 43% of the approximately 6,000 languages spoken in the world are in danger of becoming extinct. The figures in this atlas do not include languages for which little, no or misleading information is available; however, according to other databases, such as the Glottolog language catalog, more than 7 thousand languages are spoken in the world, half of which are under threat of extinction or critically endangered.

Around the world, there are multiple efforts to rescue languages that are moving towards extinction.

Sources: Ministry of Culture, UNESCO