By Lauren Wong

Someone’s native language can deeply shape their culture. Even if your first language is English, there are still many different types of English: British English, Canadian English, American English with a Southern drawl, American English with a Buffalonian accent, etc. All of these subcategories of English shape regional cultures and create a sense of identity. A Buffalonian accent brings along connotations of Buffalo wings and the Buffalo Bills; they’re all facets of regional and cultural identity.

However, many people today do not have the opportunity to experience their ethnic cultures. Roughly only 327,000 of the 4 to 7 million Indigenous people in the U.S. speak their native language, according to a 2006-2010 study recorded by the American Community Survey. This chasm between them and their ancestral languages has resulted in the loss of oral traditions and customs. Yet this tragedy still remains to be properly addressed, and many don’t view it as a large issue, despite its roots extending to two centuries ago. Indigenous is an umbrella term to describe the original inhabitants of an area. Alan Kolata provides a more specific definition for Indigenous Americans by elaborating, “Indigenous peoples of the Americas are the first people who lived in North America or South America, and their descendants. Indigenous means original or native.

Indigenous people had been living in the Americas for thousands of years before any Europeans arrived.” Indigenous people are made of many individual nations that each have their own customs, languages, and history. However, these complex aspects of Indigenous communities are rapidly vanishing. Researchers have estimated that pre-Columbus, there were roughly 300 languages spoken in the United States alone. Today, 167 remain, and if that’s not startling enough, by 2050, it’s projected that only twenty will be left. 2050 is less than thirty years from now. Is it not frightening that 147 intricate languages here today could be wiped out in that brief time? These languages hold essential worldviews and beliefs, and all of that could disappear. So, what caused this trend of language extinction?

In the 19th and 20th centuries, a series of systemic practices were put into place to suppress Indigenous languages. During this time, the United States and Canadian governments focused on trying to culturally assimilate Indigenous children into society. To do this, they forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes and sent them to boarding schools hundreds of miles away. These residential schools forbade the children from speaking their mother tongue and from wearing traditional clothing. This curriculum was designed to force the children to learn English and eradicate Indigenous languages and cultures. In doing this, the government effectively exterminated Indigenous languages from multiple generations, and it was only in 1972 with the Indian Education Act that Congress “made it legal to teach Indigenous children in their own languages and gave tribes the authority to control schools.”

The government legalized kidnapping children so they could deprive them of their culture in the name of “education”. But, surely in this modern era, the government would be properly allocating reparations to the group of people they’ve oppressed since they first came into contact with them. Unfortunately, the answer is no. According to Rebecca Nagle from High Country News, “For every dollar the U.S. spent on eradicating Native languages in previous centuries, it spent less than 7 cents on revitalizing them in this one.” The lack of reparations given by the government to the Indigenous community, despite this issue lasting for two centuries, is unacceptable. When the government doesn’t tackle this situation seriously, it can make people believe that it’s not a big deal. But it is, and it can affect you, too.

See, another consequence of language loss is the loss of biodiversity. The loss of biodiversity hinders the ability of ecosystems to interact effectively and thus prevents them from achieving a healthy state. Indigenous people have long been heralded as pioneers of biodiversity in the world. Their worldviews value a deep understanding of their local environments, an understanding that is demonstrated in their languages, such as “in the Lakota language of North America, the word ‘Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ’ means ‘all is related’ or ‘all my relatives’ – both human and non-human. These knowledge systems, on par with scientific disciplines, are critical to sustainable development.” Languages are the vehicles for articulating these worldviews. However, they can’t be imparted to future generations to practice if a community shifts to a new language that doesn’t have those same ideals and knowledge systems. If some of the biggest contributors to sustaining biodiversity can’t communicate their practices, then of course the conservation of biodiversity would be affected. It’s no surprise that with the death of languages comes the death of the planet.

Some may argue that dying languages are a natural part of life that should be accepted. Take Dave Sinai for example, who argues in, Some Languages Die–Get Over It, that endangered languages “die out because people abandon them in favor of ones that serve their needs better” (Sinai). But in this case, Indigenous languages were not willingly abandoned, and their death was not a natural one; it was murder, calculated murder committed by the government through a series of oppressive legislations. Therefore, we can’t sweep those actions under the rug and simply accept the death of Indigenous languages.

Alexandre Chemla from the Our Languages blog also argues this could lead to the beneficial globalization of English, which can facilitate communication for international trade (Chemla). But is the value of language measured purely by how useful it can be in business? Languages are more than just words and economic efficiency. They are focal points of cultural identity, not products to be replaced. To lose a language would be to lose a fundamental part of a complex society with centuries of cultivation and preservation. Not all hope is lost, though. Many changes could be made, on a federal and personal level, to preserve Indigenous languages. As the government was largely responsible for the erasure of the languages in the first place, the government could allocate more funds to Indigenous language projects. Those funds could be put towards using technology to make remote learning accessible, not only to people wanting to learn an Indigenous language online, but also to Indigenous students wanting to complete their education from home. This would reduce the pressure to move to English-speaking communities for school and abandon their native culture.

Money could also be put towards introducing local Indigenous language curricula in non-Indigenous schools. As for what we can do, we can start by promoting Indigenous language projects on social media. The power of technology enables us to spread information like wildfire with a simple click.

We can utilize this to spread awareness about endangered languages and call for more action. You could also donate to Indigenous language projects, like The Language Conservancy. However, the revitalization of Indigenous languages must receive attention from individuals and the government if we want to step off this path towards language extinction.