The decline of indigenous languages: Have we reached the end?

Apart from being a mode of communication, indigenous languages are also a mark of identity.

As a medium to convey their thoughts and emotions to one another, humans learned to vibrate the strings of their throats in a certain way to create specific sounds and these sounds were later called languages. However, over the course of time, languages have grown to mean much more than being just a way of conveying thoughts and emotions. This is true, especially for indigenous people. Their languages have become an intimate part of their being, their culture and their history.

At the same time, as people started to migrate from place to place and as civilizations started to clash with one another, the mixture and adulteration of languages became an inevitable reality. From major languages, many regional dialects started to break apart and linguistics became an actual scientific study of languages, their origin and usage.

Cambridge dictionary defines language as “a system of communication consisting of sounds, words and grammar”. But in actuality, apart from being a mode of communication, indigenous languages are also a mark of identity.

Erosion of Languages Currently

At the current point in time, there is growing recognition of the inefficacy of the current core language programs in school and community language revitalization and maintenance projects standard approaches to language retention and revitalization, current core language programs in school and community language revitalization and maintenance projects, are not working. Indeed, this conclusion is borne out by the statistics for the five-year period between 1996 and 2001 which saw the percentage of Indigenous people who spoke their mother tongue decline from 29% to 24%.8 Considering that most of those speakers are over 50 or 60 years of age, this percentage is most certainly declining at a much faster rate at present than it did between 1996 and 2001. Even if it continues to decline at the same rate of 1% per year we are in serious trouble. Indeed, it means that a serious rethinking of language survival strategies is most urgent, especially in light of current political and economic realities where monies for language survival have already been clawed back (in late 2007), and where the availability of funds from federal coffers is rapidly declining.

On the matter of the drastic decline and imminent extinction of Indigenous languages in the world:

“Before colonization, there were about 63 languages in Canada belonging to 11 different language families, the largest being Algonquian. Of the 63 languages, at least 6 are considered to be in a critical state with fewer than 50 speakers, while only 3, Cree with 80,000 speakers, Ojibway with 23,000, and Inuktitut, with 29,000, are considered to be healthy enough to survive the present century (Norris 2002). All the others, mostly with fewer than 1000 speakers, are expected to disappear from the face of the earth unless drastically new strategies are implemented to reverse the trends. Like climate change, the factors in this phenomenon are multiple and complex, and like climate change, the consequences are multiplying exponentially (Krauss 1992: 4-10, Fettes 1998, Nettle and Romaine 2000).”

Health Of An Indigenous Language

Static numbers are not the only ways to measure the health of a language. The ages of fluent speakers and the proportions and levels of fluency are even more telling indicators. For example, out of the 69,07,622 people living in the Kashmir valley, 13,69,537 are Kashmiri speakers but at the same time, the majority population of the valley is not able to read and write the script of the language.

As of today, the generation that originally spoke indigenous languages is all but fast diminishing and although there have been efforts to promote the use of these languages to stop them from getting totally lost, these have been futile. The fact stands that like many indigenous languages of the world, which were once proud and important but later got obliterated, almost all indigenous languages are also heading towards the same unfortunate end. So, while history has seen civilizations being buried and turned to ruins, the fate of some languages has not been any different. When I was reading about these languages, inadvertently my mind was drawn to the scared, sullen and rustic faces of the people ready to be gassed to death.

As a Kashmiri who cannot write and read his mother language, I cannot help but question, does a language, that is the final reminder of their resilience and their unfortunate plight, deserve the same unlucky end? Should it not be indemnified upon mankind to restore and preserve these beautiful and romantic indigenous languages in honour of those whose entire world came crumbling down upon them? If I am asked today what language I want to learn, I’ll gladly say Kashmiri. But, who is going to teach me when those whose legacy it represents are the very same individuals who are shunning it and burying it deep in the pages of history?

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