The Loss of Indigenous Languages

In Mexico, 11% of the population is classified as indigenous. To be considered indigenous in this country you are not identified along tribal or community associations (such as it is in countries like the U.S.A. or Canada), but rather along linguistic lines. So instead of being federally recognized as a member of the Chicueyaco community of Puebla state, you instead would receive recognition as a member of the Nahuatl/Aztecan speaking Peoples. To further complicate matters within any linguistic group here in Mexico there can be upwards of hundreds of different dialects dispersed over huge amounts of territory.

According to Eudelio Hinojosa Rebolledo, a delegate from the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, the current teaching methods are not conducive to the survival or developement of indigenous languages. “If these languages disappear, so will the cultural identity of the Mayan people, and with it, that of Mexico. Unfortunately, Mayan languages are disappearing because the youth have no interest in speaking them and the Mayan population is dispersed throughout the country”, says Rebolledo.

Isidro Velasquez, one of only two known speakers of the dying Ayapanec language, jokes that he speaks it only with two turkeys he keeps in the backyard of his home.

Mexico is not the only country faced with this problem, according to UNESCO, half of the languages existing in the world today could be lost within “a few generations”, due to their marginalization from the Internet, cultural and economic pressures, and the development of new technologies that favor homogeneity. This however poses a particular problem for Mexico in the very fact that a great part of what Mexico “sells” to the world is its unequalled living pluricultural society. With the loss of indigenous languages and the subsequent loss of its culture, Mexico will be faced with only being able to sell memories.The tangible “living culture” will be gone.

There have been moves made to prevent the disappearance of many of Mexico’s native tongues. According to an article on Wikipedia, “In 1992 the fourth article of Mexico’s constitution was amended to reinforce the nation’s pluricultural nature by giving the State the obligation to protect and nurture the expressions of this diversity. On June 14, 1999, the Council of Writers in Indigenous Languages presented Congress with a document entitled “Suggested legal initiatives towards linguistic rights of indigenous Peoples and communities”, with the goal of beginning to protect the linguistic rights of indigenous communities. The Ley General de Derechos Lingüisticos de los Pueblos Indígenas was passed in December 2002, establishing a framework for the conservation, nurturing and development of indigenous languages.”

Time will tell if these measures will work. There are many experts who say that the eventual erosion of languages is unavoidable and has been happening since humans first started using sound as a means of communication. My hope is that there is a way of preserving the knowledge and legacy of these languages and cultures and that they won’t be relegated to mere chapters in history books.

What is your opinion? Is the disappearance of various language groups natural and unavoidable? Is it worthwhile to preserve the linguistic and cultural legacies of languages in danger of extinction?