Modern tech saves ancient tongues from extinction

Like thousands of others around the world, Ktunaxa – an ancient Native American language – is dying out. Now, the 20 remaining native speakers are using technology to keep the tradition alive.

For more than ten thousand years, the Ktunaxa people lived peacefully in Southern Canada. Well-served by the natural world, they developed a rich heritage and culture – and a language unlike any other on earth.

Then, just 200 years ago, American settlers arrived in their territories. Their traditional way of life gradually dissolved. And now, the ancient Ktunaxa language is spoken by just 20 people.

It is not alone in its fate. Of 7,000 languages currently spoken around the world, half will die out by the end of this century. In the USA, 175 Native American languages are now spoken, but only 20 are taught in schools.

Many languages are spoken by just one or two elders – and when they die, so will the sound of their heritage. One Mexican dialect, Nuumte Oote, is spoken by just two men – who refuse to speak to each other. Thanks to that mutual dislike, their ancient language is remains unused.

Why is this silence descending over the chatter of traditional tongues? In the past fifty years, global culture has invaded long isolated indigenous communities. And it is a noisy, demanding guest.

In the past, foreign settlers systematically killed off minority tongues. Native American children, for example, would be made to speak English or Spanish in schools, and their traditional dialects were outlawed from public forums. Some languages, however, were lost more willingly. Many locals have switched to majority tongues to access a modern, exciting world beyond their traditional bubble.

Today, however, the tide is turning. Back in Canada, young Ktunaxa people are using the technology of the modern world to bring their language back from the brink. Online lessons mean anyone can learn long-forgotten grammar and vocabulary. Recorded conversations and ‘speaking dictionaries’ virtually preserve sounds and stories. Thanks to the efforts of a few committed elders and linguists, these innovative strategies are helping endangered languages all over the world shout a little louder for survival.

All hot air?

Some pundits think it is irrational to preserve lost languages. The modern world, they say, speaks global languages like Spanish, French, English and Mandarin, not the forgotten vocabulary of Ktunaxa or Nuumte Oote. Indigenous people should look to the future, not to the irrelevant past.

Others disagree. Languages are part of our heritage: tradition, wisdom and culture are woven into nouns and verbs. If we lose the ancient tongues of history, we lose something very precious indeed.

You Decide

  1. Should we work to preserve endangered languages?
  2. Why is language connected to heritage, culture and tradition?

Activities

  1. In groups, improvise a dramatic scene entirely in a made-up language. How much information is it possible to convey without knowing the meanings of the words?
  2. Try your hand at learning an endangered language. Use some of the resources in the links to find out phrases – and show off your skills by having a short conversation.

Some People Say...

“Why learn other languages when everyone speaks English?”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are British languages getting lost?
Absolutely. British languages like Cornish and Manx are now effectively extinct, by some counts. And though Welsh has just been pulled back from the brink, with around 500,000 speakers it is still threatened.
Surely it wasn’tforced out, though?
The systematic removal of traditional languages is closer to home than you might think. In the 19th Century, the English attempted to spread their language and culture into Wales. Children who spoke Welsh would be made to wear a ‘Not Welsh’ sign around their neck. In a particularly sinister twist to the punishment, the child could only take off the sign if they caught another pupil speaking the mother tongue – and whoever was left wearing the label at the end of the day got a thrashing from the teacher.

Word Watch

Indigenous
The term indigenous generally refers to those people who lived in a country before settlers arrived – it comes from the Latin indigena – sprung from the land.
Nuumte Oote
The traditional name for this dying language, Nuumte Oote means ‘the true voice’. It is spoken in the Mexican village of Ayapa by 75-year-old Manuel Segovia and 69-year-old Isidro Velazquez. Foreigners call the language Ayapaneco.
English or Spanish
As two of the most widely spoken languages – and the ones spoken by settlers in North and South America, where there are significant indigenous populations – English and Spanish have been adopted by many people. But dying languages can’t just be blamed on these ones: the influence of any language that has dominance in a country or area can have an effect on local dialects.

Subjects

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