Danger in Losing Indigenous Languages

Author: Anita Lynch, UNAAWA Intern

Approximately one Indigenous language is lost every two weeks and experts estimate that by 2100 more than 50 per cent of the world’s languages will be lost completely. 2019 was proclaimed the International Year of Indigenous Languages by the UN General Assembly in the hope that this would draw attention to the rapid rate at which Indigenous languages are currently being lost worldwide and the imminent threat this poses to the very existence of Indigenous identities and cultures.

A participant from Canada attends the launch of the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Photo: UN Photo #796638

Colonisation throughout the world has eroded Indigenous languages through the practices of assimilation, discrimination, dispossession of land and genocide resulting in the loss of large portions of Indigenous populations.

Prior to colonisation, approximately 250-300 individual Indigenous languages existed within Australia alone. According to the Director of the Indigenous Languages Education at the University of Sydney, Susan Poetsch, if you include dialects this equates to approximately 600-800 languages in total. As of 2019, there are only 13 traditional Indigenous languages that classify as both actively acquired by the younger generation and which are spoken by all generations of that individual community. Poetsch states that many of the other Indigenous languages throughout Australia are either critically endangered and at risk of extinguishing with the passing of the next elder generation, or are in the process of revitalization through historical and archival processes.

The survival of Indigenous languages is pivotal in maintaining the cultural identity of Indigenous groups and communities. Many national and international legislations recognise and claim to protect the rights Indigenous people hold to promote, use, practice and transmit their Indigenous language and associated language practices, including but not to limited to; the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal People’s Convention, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Source: Australian Government Dept. of Communications and the Arts

Australia needs to take inspiration from the language-preservation efforts of countries such as New Zealand, wherein a target was set in 2018 for all primary schools to teach the Indigenous Maori Language of Te Reo, andCanada where the Indigenous Languages Act aimed at maintaining, reclaiming and revitalizing Indigenous language in Canada was approved in 2019. Such action would be a much-needed and crucial way in which Australia could truly be seen to be asserting it’s commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous Australian peoples and the protection of their rights.

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