Laws helped kill indigenous languages. Can they also save them?

Culture clashes with the law happen throughout history.
Culture clashes with the law happen throughout history.
Image: Reuters/Adriano Machado
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There are approximately 6,000 spoken languages on Earth, according to UNESCO, and 43% of them are endangered. In other words, almost half the means of communication for specific cultural or social groups are at risk of extinction. In several instances, there are fewer than 10 speakers of some languages remaining. Many governments are using legislation to combat this, but laws alone may not be the most effective tool. Ironically, laws are also what drove many indigenous languages to the imperiled state they are in today.

This issue came to a head most recently in Alaska, where the loss of indigenous languages was officially declared an “emergency” on Sept. 23. Governor Bill Walker issued an order calling for improved relations between the state and tribal governments to revitalize Native languages, prompted by a report from the The Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council warning they could be extinct by the end of the century.

Canada is drafting similar legislation, and prime minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet has reportedly contacted indigenous leaders to draft a bill this fall that focuses on the languages of the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. Other countries making notable efforts include many in South America, Taiwan, and Australia, the last of which passed an unprecedented law last year to revive indigenous languages.

Experts point out, however, that laws also helped push these languages to the fringes of society in the first place. “Legislation and policy have certainly played a role in language survival in North America,” says Anna Daigneault, program director at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. In Canada, for instance, the Indian Act of 1876 allowed indigenous children to be forcibly taken from their families and sent to institutionalized residential schools to assimilate into dominant Canadian culture.

“This had a grave and traumatic impact on First Nations not only for the status of their languages, but for the integrity of their communities and the mental and physical health of survivors” Daigneault said. (At least 6,000 children died in these systems.) Family separation also “caused a tremendous loss in linguistic transmission.” Other long-term byproducts of colonization, Daigneault notes, such as the dominance of trade languages and the urbanization of rural areas, also played key roles.

Tyler Peterson, assistant professor of English at Arizona State University, whose work focuses on the maintenance of endangered indigenous languages, says that there are examples all over the world of state-legislated linguistic policies that adversely affected minority languages. The 1899 Former Natives Protection Law in Japan and China’s government mandates to use Mandarin are such cases, but “there are too many to mention,” Peterson says.

Whether or not state-funded legislation is the best way to reverse these effects is complex. While such laws give endangered languages visibility on the national stage and provide financial support, Daigneault points out that “the best available tool…is robust language immersion programming, dedicated teachers and speakers and leaders who value their languages, and support for families who choose to embrace their heritage languages as one of their primary languages.”

This is not to say that regulation does not still play a crucial role. A better way to understand it might be to compare it to legislation that aims to protect the environment. Says Peterson:

“Think of the complexities of climate change: The government (locally) can mandate recycling, but this is only as effective as teaching the public how to recycle, and that they have a part to play in protecting the environment. The state or federal government can complement this with laws controlling factory emissions; but again, this is only as effective to the extent the government implements and enforces the environmental laws.”

One example of effective implementation is in New Zealand, where schools are now producing the first generation of pākehā Maori speakers because the government pledged to provide Maori lessons in all schools by 2025 (paywall). Peterson puts the significance into perspective: It would be as if a non-indigenous resident of New York learned to speak one of the Algonquin languages native to the area.

So, as human-made as the endangered states of almost half the world’s languages are, so too are the solutions that will save them, and formal legislation is just one part of the answer. “Linguistically, this loss of diversity is not a natural trajectory in the evolution of our species,” Peterson says. “It is human-caused, just like our climate.”