Defining Words and Worlds
We’ve written quite a bit about Indigenous language revitalization on this blog, but I don’t think we’ve ever taken the time to thoroughly explain what it is. Here’s an attempt to do that. It’s long, I know, but there’s actually a lot packed into those three words! I welcome your feedback, questions, and critiques as thinking through this concept is part of my new journey as a settler scholar in this field.
First things first: Defining Indigenous
Indigenous Language Revitalization (ILR) refers to efforts to reverse the declining use of Indigenous languages around the world. Indigenous languages are the original languages spoken by Indigenous peoples. While the term indigenous can simply mean “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place”, Indigenous peoples refers more specifically to the descendants of the original inhabitants of regions that have been colonized, settled, or otherwise occupied.* Indigenous peoples often have a strong connection to particular lands, as well as distinct cultural, social, economic, and political traditions that have been adversely affected by settlement on their traditional territories and subordination by settler groups. I capitalize this use of the term Indigenous as a proper noun, just as terms like Spaniard and Russian are capitalized in English.
Why focus on Indigenous languages?
Language revitalization, also called language revival, language reclamation**, and reversing language shift, among other terms, is a concern for many speech communities. Today there are approximately 7000 languages spoken in the world, but it is estimated that half of these languages will disappear in the next 100 years. While there are efforts to increase the use of some strong languages in areas where they are not the main language (for example increasing the use of French, Japanese, or Urdu in Canada), this is not the same as language revitalization since the language as a whole is not under threat of losing all its speakers. The majority of the languages that are threatened in this way are Indigenous languages. For example, there were an estimated 450 Indigenous languages spoken in what is now Canada at the time of European contact, but today only 60 of these remain, and the majority are severely endangered. An endangered language is one that is likely to lose all of its speakers in the near future.
How can languages be revitalized?
Language revitalization essentially refers to efforts to strengthen the use (and/or number of speakers) of a language. This can involve many different strategies and approaches such as language documentation, including transcribing old texts or creating print and multimedia recordings of language from current speakers; curriculum development; language classes in schools; community language classes; bilingual or immersion programs; master-apprentice programs where a learner is paired with a fluent speaker for one-on-one learning; technology development, including online language programs, web content, and media of all forms; language policy development; and political advocacy. These strategies can be implemented on a very small scale, such as one individual learning through a mentor-apprentice program, to very large scale, such as national policy development.
What makes ILR unique?
While ILR can involve the above strategies, it is distinct from general language revitalization in at least three ways. First, the reasons for Indigenous language decline are different from those of other endangered languages. While languages all over the world increase and decrease in use for various reasons such as immigration, urbanization, and globalization, Indigenous language loss can be largely attributed to the domination of colonial powers on Indigenous territories. Colonial governments have deliberately eradicated Indigenous cultures and languages through violent assimilatory policies and practices. In Canada, the United States, Australia, and elsewhere, Indigenous children were removed from their homes and forced to study at distant residential schools where they were punished for speaking their language or practicing elements of their culture. Even if they retained knowledge of their Indigenous language as adults, they were unlikely to pass it on to their children for fear of ridicule and persecution. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas refers to this deliberate eradication of Indigenous languages as linguistic genocide.
ILR is also different from other language revitalization efforts because of the kinds of resources available for Indigenous languages. Many Indigenous languages are oral languages that did not have writing systems before colonization. There are often no old texts that can be studied for ILR. In many cases, knowledge of the language is held by only a few elderly speakers who cannot individually recount all words or phrases. Yet, ILR is not just about documenting or preserving languages of the past (in the way that Latin, for example, has been preserved but is not actually used outside of certain restricted religious settings). Rather, it is about bringing language to a place of strength so that it can easily meet modern communication needs and adapt to new needs as they arise. ILR efforts have the dual task of recounting ancient vocabulary and creating new words to meet the needs of current daily life. The latter can be a contentious task as questions around authority arise between and within communities. Even if a complete record of the language exists, huge investments are required for program development, resource creation, teacher training, or other aspects of a given ILR effort, which is often one of many competing priorities for the community.
The third way in which ILR differs from other language revitalization scenarios is the political context in which Indigenous communities find themselves today. Although many colonial governments have begun to recognize the importance of reconciliation for past wrongs, Indigenous communities continue to suffer from discrimination, marginalization, and lack of power as a result of past and current colonial treatment. Most do not have full political control of their lands, legal systems, education systems, or other institutions, and their languages do not have official status. Therefore, the will of the people may not be enough to get the required support for ILR. Specific political action must be taken by Indigenous peoples to raise the issue as part of a wider struggle for their collective rights. Just as Indigenous languages have been deliberately taken from Indigenous peoples, it requires deliberate action and advocacy to bring them back to a place of strength. As Teresa McCarty explains, ILR “is not merely or even primarily a linguistic issue, but is part of larger fight for Indigenous cultural survival, human rights, and self-determination”.
*Many points discussed in this post are not my original ideas. I don’t usually include academic references in my blog posts, but if you’re keen to learn more, please ask me for a reference list!
**Indigenous peoples are increasingly moving away from terms like “dying”, “endangered”, and even “revitalization” when referring to their languages and language work. These terms are not only discouraging, but they focus on loss when the reality is that many Indigenous languages are now in a state of growth. It is increasingly common to discuss language “vitality” rather than “endangerment” and to refer to the work as language reclamation and resilience.