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An epidemic is threatening indigenous languages


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Some languages are spoken by very few people but are still very much alive, while others have been preserved by the isolation of their speakers. Marleen Haboud from Ecuador explains these apparently paradoxical phenomena.

By Marleen Haboud

What is the status of Central Andean languages, in terms  of their viability?

In the Central Andes (Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia) the estimate is that one hundred indigenous languages are still alive. Determining exactly just how alive they are is not easy. This varies not only from one language to another, but also within a given language, depending on where it is spoken, the age of the speaker, their vocation, gender, level of education, etc. For example, in Ecuador, Quechua is widely spoken in certain regions of the country, while it is rapidly disappearing from others. In this heterogeneous context, and even if certain languages continue to be used by the new generations, the general trend for all languages in the region is constant regression.

How do you explain this situation?

Several factors are involved, such as the living conditions of native speakers, whether or not they receive institutional and social aid, the extent to which the language continues to function in all modern communication contexts, and indeed, the interest and pride of the people who speak it.

In terms of viability, the number of native speakers can be a relative concept. Some languages are spoken by a small number of people but are very much alive, such as A’i cofán in Ecuadorian Amazonia. And, on the contrary, the number of speakers of some trans-national languages, such as Quechua, is dwindling every day.

Some indigenous languages maintain their vitality because of the isolation of native speakers, who find they have around them all they need to live comfortably. But isolation should not be a condition for the survival of one of these languages; the ideal situation would be that they cohabit with the predominant languages and societies and that they gain in strength, despite the homogenizing trends of globalization.

Why do languages disappear?

Over the last decades, a complex set of circumstances has accelerated the disappearance of indig enous languages, including contacts with other peoples, the death of native speakers, radical changes in their way of life, loss of land, massive migrations, and so on.

Only joint actions integrated with global society can curb this kind of epidemic, which is making indigenous languages and their speakers vulnerable. This presupposes that, first of all, society as a whole gets to know these languages and their speakers, and learns to respect and help keep them alive, so that we achieve the ideal of a truly multi- cultural society.

Another very important factor for keeping a language alive is the  image that both its speakers and non-speakers have of it. A person who is proud of his or her language will be more likely to keep it going.

Could you give examples  of some national or regional initiatives that have helped  to revitalize languages in the region?

There have been several initiatives in our countries to help maintain minority languages. On one hand there have been government initiatives. In Andean countries, constitutional reforms have given indigenous languages an official status. The linguistic and educational policies of these countries are quite well defined and, even if they are still not always widely applied, their aim is to preserve the languages, culture and identity of their speakers, as well as respect and equality between peoples.

At the same time there are the efforts being made by speakers themselves, both collectively and individually. For example, thanks to the creation of specific family- and community-based educational programmes, families are trying to regain or consolidate their languages.

Indigenous movements in Latin America have turned a corner in their campaign for the rights of indigenous peoples, with the creation of new bilingual, intercultural educational programmes at all levels of formal education, specific health programmes and the creation of official services for speakers of certain languages. In some countries more than others, the media have also taken initiatives to encourage the public use of certain languages, especially those with the greatest number of speakers. Bolivia is a prime example of this.

Throughout history, new lan- guages have been born while others have died out, why should we be concerned about the disappearance of languages?

Just like humans themselves, languages are born and die, but we have never before seen them die at such a rapid rate as during the past decades. This means not just the loss of words and expressions, but also a store of knowledge and ways of understanding the world and communicating with others, of constructing history, of exchanging with other human beings, with elders and younger generations, and of conceptualising time, space, the living world, life and death. Each language is a universe. And, every time a word dies, unique and irreplaceable stories disappear with it.

Marleen Haboud

Marleen Haboud is a a specialist in Andean languages.