Indigenous Languages Explained: What You Need to Know Today

indigenous languages fluent

How would you feel if you were the only person left in the world who spoke your native language?

It seems unthinkable, right? Yet, it’s a reality for more than a few speakers of indigenous languages that are at risk of dying out. In fact, it’s estimated that one indigenous language is lost every two weeks.

Out of around 7,111 languages, about a fifth are endangered or vulnerable on some level. Indigenous languages make up at least 4,000 of the world’s languages, though it’s impossible to know the exact number.

But what exactly is an indigenous language and what makes them so important?

Listen to this podcast episode with me and Lindsay Williams to learn more about indigenous languages (and Sean Paul!).

What’s an Indigenous Language?

To put it simply, an indigenous language is one that is spoken by the indigenous people of a region.

However, most indigenous languages are also minority languages that are spoken by a very small number of people and many of them are in danger of losing out to more widely spoken languages. Factors such assimilation into the dominant culture or even coercion to abandon minority languages have seriously decreased the number of native speakers. In some cases, there is only one known speaker of a language, which puts these languages at serious risk of becoming extinct.

The Year of Indigenous Languages

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Indigenous languages are fading out, unnoticed, because there aren’t enough people who speak or learn them.

What can we do about it?

In an effort to bring attention to and preserve these languages, along with the cultural diversity they represent, the United Nations has declared 2019 as The International Year of Indigenous Languages.

The idea behind the declaration is not only to raise awareness, but to take actions that support, increase access to, and promote indigenous languages, including:

  • Supporting revitalization with more materials and services that encourage speakers to use indigenous languages

  • Increasing educational means to learn indigenous languages

  • Promoting knowledge of both indigenous languages and cultures

Why is Protecting Indigenous Languages So Important?

Think for a moment about a time you felt like an outsider among people who spoke a foreign language. Besides the more obvious difficulties of not being able to express yourself, you might have felt that there were social and cultural differences that you just didn’t understand. Likewise, there would be things that they wouldn’t understand about you.

That’s because language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Culture, traditions, social norms, and even unique expressions are built into a language. What do you think happens when those things aren’t passed down alongside indigenous languages due to assimilation, discrimination, and other threats to indigenous languages?

They become lost, too.

Language is a Human Right

When we allow indigenous languages to be lost and discriminated against, we’re also allowing indigenous people to be forgotten and discriminated against. Working to preserve indigenous languages acknowledges that choosing and speaking our languages is a human right.

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, law provides for:

  • Freedom from discrimination

  • The right to a fair trial, which means getting an interpreter if needed

  • Freedom of expression - no matter which language you choose

  • The right to education in your chosen medium of instruction

The effort to preserve indigenous languages reminds us that:

  • Nationhood is NOT defined through language, as shown in many situations all around the world where languages have been imposed on people after conquest or colonization.

  • Indigenous languages are very often minority languages, and minorities are routinely

    • Denied education, money, access to opportunities and resources

    • Exploited and oppressed, so they cannot speak out about what matters to them

  • Your language IS your voice, your history, and your culture. It’s a big source of self-confidence and self-belief in the world.

    • When you lose that connection to your own identity, you lose yourself.

How Much Do You Know about Indigenous Languages?

You might be surprised to learn that…

  • Only 23 languages are used by more than half of the world’s population

  • Up to 95% of the world’s languages might be extinct or endangered by the end of the century

  • Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse country in the world, followed by Indonesia and Nigeria. Most of the languages spoken in these countries are indigenous.

  • The Navajo language is the most spoken Native American language in the U.S.

In some cases, indigenous languages have a larger influence on the dominant language or culture than you think.

In an effort to promote these languages and bring indigenous cultures into the spotlight, some people have implemented more creative (and fantastic) means.

  • The National Arts Centre in Ottawa is opening the first Indigenous Theatre program, featuring multiple shows performed entirely in an indigenous language

Sharing Indigenous Languages

As enthusiastic and curious language learners, you might already be wondering about what some of these indigenous languages sound like, especially if you’ve never heard of them before.

Are they ever similar to more dominant languages in the same region? If not, how different are they?

Luckily, as more and more people embrace indigenous languages, opportunities to listen to and learn about them are increasing as well. For instance, you can listen to covers of popular songs in an indigenous language, like this version of Blackbird sung in Mi’kmaq, which is spoken in Canada and the U.S.

Similarly, there have been a few projects to expand the reach of Navajo, including a dubbed version of Star Wars and Finding Nemo.

Music lovers can also hope to find both cover songs and original music by speakers of indigenous languages, including this one by Eivør Pálsdóttir, a Faroese singer and songwriter. If you listen, you might pick out that Faroese is related to Icelandic, though it still has distinctive qualities of its own. Currently, the language is mainly spoken in the Faroe Islands.

A Mi’kmaq prayer book photographed by  Dennis Jarvis  (Flickr)

A Mi’kmaq prayer book photographed by Dennis Jarvis (Flickr)

Recommendations for Tools and Resources

You can start learning any language, including many indigenous ones. If the language is endangered or spoken by a minority that has experienced unfavourable treatment in the past, bear in mind that your access may not match the access that members of the language community may have.

Approach language practice with the same respect you would owe anyone that gives you the time and attention of practicing a language with them.

Remember: Cultural exchange and learning each other’s languages is how humans show respect to each other.

The best places to find out about almost any language under the sun are these four:

To learn one of those many languages, keep an eye out among the most popular language resources first. Programmes like Glossika or Drops support a few indigenous languages, and you may be surprised about how many languages you’ll find at Teach Yourself, Michel Thomas or Pimsleur.

Don’t forget to look at social media as a second resource, searching for hashtags in indigenous languages and following musicians or writers who use them.

And finally, look around platforms like Italki when you’re ready to have a conversation with an online tutor. With over 10,000 tutors listed on the platform, we have studied several popular indigenous languages ourselves on there such as Guaraní and Icelandic.

Do You Know an Indigenous Language?

Share a comment below and tell us what you know about an indigenous language from anywhere in the world.