Languages and Poverty: Preserving Indigenous Languages

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SEATTLE, Washington — The United Nations estimates that the world holds upwards of 370 million Indigenous peoples in 70 countries. According to a World Bank study, more than 75% of Indigenous peoples currently reside in China, South Asia and Southeast Asia.  While Indigenous communities, or the “ethnic minority” as they are called in China, represent only 5% of the world’s population, they contribute to 15% of the world’s poor. Numerous political and social factors influence the unequal poverty felt by Indigenous peoples, including geographic isolation, political exclusion and colonization. However, by recognizing how language connects to poverty, we can better understand how to overcome this problem, while retaining the cultural diversity Indigenous languages add to the world.

Languages and Power

In an interview with Joshua Raclaw, an associate professor of linguistics at West Chester University, he shed some light on the connection between language and poverty. “In many areas around the world, Indigenous groups have been negatively impacted by social forces like colonization and globalization and may also be impacted by other power structures that enforce inequity among social groups like racism,” said Raclaw. He defines Indigenous languages as “those that have been historically used by groups that are native to a particular geographical area—that is, the original or at least the earliest known inhabitants of that area.”

Even though about 7,000 languages are spoken in the world today, only 23 are used by more than half the world’s population. Raclaw pointed out that monolingualism, or language uniformity, plays a large part in language discrimination. For example, starting in the 1940s, the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party used language as a form of state control. Standard Mandarin, or Modern Standard Chinese, became the country’s national language, allowing the communist party to extend its reach and erase diversity in order to create “one China.”

Preserving Indigenous Languages

While society has encouraged monolingualism for education purposes linked to poverty reduction, preservation efforts are needed to retain the cultural and diverse benefits of Indigenous languages. Yet, political and historical factors are hindering the growth of Indigenous languages and peoples. “Indigenous identity can be contentious and fraught with political sensitivities as recognition of a given group can trigger human rights obligations and claims to resources,” noted the World Bank. However, multilingual education and policy changes can reverse the oppression Indigenous communities face while helping eradicate global poverty.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the disadvantageous position of Indigenous peoples. Prior to COVID-19, Indigenous communities already had poor access to quality healthcare, a situation that exacerbated amid the pandemic. In some cases where facilities are accessible, Indigenous peoples regularly face discrimination or cannot access the resources because of the language barrier. The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, which the U.N. celebrated virtually on August 10, shared a timely theme: COVID-19 and Indigenous peoples’ resilience.

Why Should Indigenous Languages be Preserved?

When asked why we should preserve Indigenous languages, Raclaw stated, “My immediate response to this question is always: why shouldn’t Indigenous languages be preserved? What benefit is there in destroying a part of a community’s culture and sense of self, which is precisely what happens when Indigenous languages are lost?”

“There are lots of arguments we could make as to why these languages should be preserved,” Raclaw continued, “as reparations for the harmful social forces (like colonization) that helped lower speaker numbers to begin with, or because we want to preserve indigenous ways of understanding the world, or simply for the sake of keeping languages around so that linguists and other language scientists can fruitfully examine them as part of our work on language typology and linguistic universals. But I always go back to the question of why these languages—or any languages—shouldn’t be preserved.”

As citizens of the global community, we should do our part in preserving cultures and languages. While there is a connection between Indigenous languages and poverty, multilingual education and policy changes can provide Indigenous communities with better job opportunities, secure healthcare and improved quality of life.

—Maria Marabito
Photo: Flickr

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