Decade of Indigenous Languages


In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond.
This month we are looking at what the International Decade of Indigenous Languages is and why it is important.

ON Dec 18, 2019 the General Assembly of the United Nations designated the 10 years starting Jan 1, 2022 as “The International Decade of Indigenous Languages”.
It did so at the end of 2019, which was the International Year of Indigenous Languages, as it recognised that there was too much important work to be done to support indigenous languages and one year was not enough time to do anything but begin with this work. By devoting 10 years to supporting indigenous languages, the UN hopes to overcome the suppression that many indigenous languages suffer and to use its bodies such as Unesco to strengthen the use of indigenous languages around the world.
These languages are under threat in many ways. For many years in many countries indigenous people were prohibited from using their native languages. In some countries children were removed from their families and placed in boarding schools so that they would learn the colonisers’ language and forget their ancestral language. Even today there are some places where the use of indigenous languages in public is not allowed and where children are punished for speaking their native languages in school.
In many parts of the world, war, and natural disasters force indigenous people to leave their homelands and migrate to cities or even to other countries. When this happens, children tend to learn the language of their new surroundings better than their grandparents’ language.
But the biggest threat to indigenous languages is indifference. This is the case in Papua New Guinea, which has more indigenous languages than any other country, but where the educated elite place more importance on learning English than Papua New Guinea’s own languages and where, unlike in many other countries, the Government does not have a national language institute or a national plan to support its indigenous languages.
Without government support, the documentation and revitalisation of indigenous languages is left to underfunded NGOs, church groups, or foreign academics.
We would expect universities in the country with the greatest number of languages in the world to be international centres for the study of indigenous languages. Instead, PNG universities have small, poorly funded linguistics programmes with students needing to travel abroad for postgraduate studies if they want to learn about how to research their own indigenous languages. This is a sad sign of Papua New Guinea’s indifference to its rich linguistic heritage.
Links to modern medicine

Stop sign in an indigenous language of northern Canada.

The importance of indigenous languages for the development of local cultural identities is obvious. What is less obvious is the link between indigenous languages and modern medicine. Modern medicine uses ingredients from plants, and researchers are constantly looking for plant substances from which they can make new medicines. They often rely on indigenous people to teach them about traditional medicines. But that knowledge is only passed on in the languages those people speak.
When a language is no longer spoken, the names of plants, the reactions they produce, and the techniques to produce medicines from them are often lost as well. Dr Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, a biologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, estimates that knowledge about 84 per cent of medicinal plants in New Guinea exists in only one language. This means that when a particular PNG language is no longer spoken, knowledge about medicinal plants that are described in that language also disappears.
Studies by researchers from the Czech Republic and Portugal have shown that Papua New Guinean school children are increasingly unable to name plants and animals in their own languages or talk about the natural environment in their ancestral languages. Valuable tools for future Papua New Guinean scientists are being lost.
The International Decade of Indigenous Languages is a good opportunity for all of to think of ways to stop this decline. Government bodies at both national and provincial levels can analyse how they can support indigenous languages in their area of responsibility.
Educational institutions can make plans about ways to support indigenous languages through speech contests, special classes, or the incorporation of indigenous knowledge in the regular school curriculum. Religious groups can make use of indigenous languages in their devotions and children’s classes.
Throughout the world, modern media tend to be in English or other international languages, so that there is a natural shift towards these languages, which are seen as more “modern”. By making use of indigenous languages in social media, YouTube videos, or recorded music, young people can use this decade to make important steps towards using their own languages in modern ways.
The most important thing everyone can do is to use their own languages at home with children, grandchildren, and younger siblings. The greatest threat to indigenous languages is when they are not used at home and are therefore not learned naturally by young children.
When children grow up hearing their ancestral language, they learn it naturally. They should be praised for speaking their own language and encouraged to use it as much as possible (“speak to bubu in tok ples, you know how it makes her happy”).
Teach the young with gentleness
Criticism and scolding rarely help language learning. The most damaging thing I have seen older people do is to criticise teenagers for not speaking their traditional language properly. Such criticism made the teenagers prefer to use Tok Pisin and English, and I am sure they will not be inclined to use their traditional language with their own children when they are parents. Gentle and loving comments are much more effective.
If all families use the next 10 years to speak to their children in their own language, if church, private, and educational institutions look at ways to incorporate local languages into the way that they operate, and if the national government prioritises its support for Papua New Guinean indigenous languages, perhaps even establishing a National Institute of PNG Languages, future generations will be able to look at this International Decade of Indigenous Languages as a time when the decline of indigenous languages was halted.
They are a resource too valuable to for us to ignore.

  • Craig Volker is an adjunct professor in linguistics in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia and Visiting Professor in English Linguistics at Kansai University in Japan. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at [email protected] Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

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