‘Culture is language’: why an indigenous tongue is thriving in Paraguay

On a hillside monument in Asunción, a statue of the mythologized indigenous chief Lambaré stands alongside other great leaders from Paraguayan history.

The other historical heroes on display are of mixed ancestry, but the idea of a noble indigenous heritage is strong in Paraguay, and – uniquely in the Americas – can be expressed by most of the country’s people in an indigenous language: Paraguayan Guaraní.

“Guaraní is our culture – it’s where our roots are,” said Tomasa Cabral, a market vendor in the city.

Elsewhere in the Americas, European colonial languages are pushing native languages towards extinction, but Paraguayan Guaraní – a language descended from several indigenous tongues – remains one of the main languages of 70% of the country’s population.

And unlike other widely spoken native tongues – such as Quechua, Aymara or the Mayan languages – it is overwhelmingly spoken by non-indigenous people.

Miguel Verón, a linguist and member of the Academy of the Guaraní Language, said the language had survived partly because of the landlocked country’s geographic isolation and partly because of the “linguistic loyalty” of its people.

“The indigenous people refused to learn Spanish,” he said. “The [imperial] governors had to learn to speak Guaraní.”

But while it remains under pressure from Spanish, Paraguayan Guaraní is itself part of the threat looming over the country’s other indigenous languages.

Paraguay’s 19 surviving indigenous groups each have their own tongue, but six of them are listed by Unesco as severely or critically endangered. One language, Guaná, has just a handful of speakers left.

Read more: The Guardian

Indigenous sign languages once used to help nations communicate still being used today

American Sign Language is the most widely used sign language for those who are hearing impaired or deaf, but Indigenous people used sign languages long before the development of ASL. 

There’s Plateau Sign Language, which is used on the West coast by nations such as the Salish, Inuit Sign Language and Plains Indian Sign Language.

Martin Heavy Head Jr. is a member of the Blood Tribe of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Alberta, and he grew up speaking Plains Indian Sign Language, though he is not deaf.

“Generally speaking, people didn’t understand one another’s languages, so there had to be a universal language among the Plains Indians,” Heavy Head said.

Historically, Plains Indian Sign Language was used by the Crow, Cree, Gros Ventre and Sioux, among other plains nations as a way to communicate with one another when there was no one to translate when the nations came together.

“When we were going to be making a treaty… it was the language that was used because we didn’t fully understand each other’s languages, but everybody spoke Plains Indian Sign Language,” Heavy Head said.

Read more: CBC

Language and identity: the stories behind the world’s endangered languages

As Europeans began to colonize North America, Native Americans were placed in reservation boarding schools, where students were taught English and subjected to forced cultural assimilation.

This forced assimilation took a toll on linguistic diversity on the continent and as a result, North American indigenous languages have been on the decline since 1790.

For human biology sophomore Alexa Oldman, language revitalization is critical to keeping indigenous North American languages and identity alive.

“It’s important for not only me but all other Native Americans to revitalize the language, because that is a part of who we are,” Oldman said. “Our ancestors fought to keep the traditions alive and try to speak the language, even though they were reprimanded for it.” 

Since the age of two, Oldman has participated in cultural events and learned traditional Native American dances. 

She said she believes language preservation efforts are crucial given the centuries of struggle her ancestors endured in order to keep their culture and language alive under colonization.

Oldman has ties to two tribes: Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa in Petoskey, Michigan. 

Her grandmother was among those who were placed in English boarding schools, resulting in language loss.

“My grandma had attended a boarding school, and her mom and dad were both fluent speakers in Anishinaabemowin,” Oldman said. “Due to having to go to the boarding schools, my grandma then lost how to speak their own language.” 

Despite her grandmother losing her family’s native tongue, Oldman said her family has managed to pass Native American customs down the line. 

“I had attended ceremonies — Native ceremonies — when I was younger as well, and up until now,” Oldman said. “Even my mom herself grew up the same way too. So, that’s why she taught me my cultural ways. … There’s Seven Grandfather Teachings that we learned about when we were younger, and that we learn to live by and follow throughout our life. And then we learn about the four different directions. And we practice Sun Dance, which comes from my Northern Arapaho tribe out in Wyoming, which is only specific to them.”

These teachings continued to influence and shape Oldman as a young adult. 

“The Seven Grandfather Teachings, and a few that would be respect, truth, and honesty,” Oldman said. “And because we live by that, then it teaches you to respect people, respect your peers. Be truthful and be honest in certain situations.”

Anishinaabemowin’s status, according to the Endangered Language Project, or ELP is threatened, with about 1,500 native speakers left.

Read more: State News

Ancestral languages are essential to Indigenous identities in Canada

Recent protests against the federal government’s approach to Indigenous language legislation is the latest manifestation of concern regarding the maintenance and flourishing of Indigenous languages and culture.

Although these latest protests are centred around jurisdiction and funding, the fundamental issue for Indigenous peoples is support for an essential part of their identity.

My work in the area of Indigenous education and languages leads me to believe what is core to the concern for language support is the meanings and narratives that are reflected in language.

The breadth of issues and potential initiatives reflected in the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) cover many areas that are germane to the well-being of Indigenous peoples.

The general aim of reconciliation that has emerged from the activities of the TRC is the development of a new relationship amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. Such a new relationship must acknowledge harms of the past and their impact into present.

It is now clear that the reconciliatory journey must recognize, affirm and follow up on prescriptions for change that aim to rectify many wrongs affecting many areas of the Indigenous peoples’ experience.

One of those areas that is of particular interest to educators at numerous levels is that of language and culture.

Read more: The Conversation

2019 is UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages. And we need it to be

Today, 28th of January 2019, the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) will begin. And there are good reasons to spread awareness about the state of the world’s indigenous languages.

As linguists, we are all too familiar with the depressing statistics surrounding indigenous languages. As is summarized on websites like Ethnologue, around 4,000 of the approximately 7,000 languages of the world are spoken by a mere two percent of the world’s population. The eight most spoken languages globally (a little over 0.01 percent of all languages) are spoken by no less than 40 percent of the people inhabiting our planet.

It is estimated that half of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of this century, but so far no action has been taken against this on a global scale.

How and why do languages disappear?

Many people do not particularly care about the fact that languages become extinct, because, the thinking goes, they did not stand the test of time, and so people switch to a more practical language. In that regard, the extinction of languages is largely comparable to the extinction of animal species.

Some people are saddened by the fact that animals die out, but others might say that this is just natural selection. This is however not always true: Although countless animal species have indeed become extinct as a result of natural selection, the rate at which they are currently dying out is unprecedented compared to the time before homo sapiens got a foothold in the animal kingdom.

With languages, this is actually not entirely different. Sometimes people say that the extinction of languages is the result of natural selection, but this is not true. It is in fact humans who cause language extinction.

Read more: Science Nordic

How an Edmonton-based designer is using fashion to revitalize Indigenous languages

EDMONTON—When Brandi Morin’s kohkum (Cree for grandmother) passed away, her aunties were cleaning her house and found pieces of paper scattered throughout that had short stories and memories on them in their mother’s handwriting.

They found the elongated, cursive writings on scrap bits, papers, and even flyers. They compiled all her writings in a mini book, made photocopies, and gave them to all the children and grandchildren, including Morin.

Inspired by her kohkum, Morin, an Edmonton-based designer, decided to use her handwritten stories in her designs. This inspired a casual-wear line of shirts and leggings that aims to revitalize endangered Indigenous languages. Being Métis, Morin decided to call her line Mixed Blood Apparel.

She is just one of many Indigenous designers from Alberta who are taking the fashion world by storm, one culturally appropriate piece at a time.

The Indigenous fashion industry has seen a growth in the past couple years, with the country’s very first Indigenous fashion show called Otahpiaaki taking place in Calgary in 2016, followed by Vancouver in 2017, and Toronto this past summer. In Alberta, the fashion industry has become a movement, advocating for awareness of Indigenous culture, traditions and issues. Most Indigenous designers are using their labels and designs for advocacy, not just fashion.

Morin’s line of shirts and leggings include solid colours with words, phrases, and sometimes even entire sentences, written in Cree.

“My vision for Mixed Blood Apparel was to create empowering contemporary fashion designs that celebrate Indigenous culture and help revitalize endangered Indigenous languages, and also to incorporate and uplift the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” she said.

“I really recognize that Indigenous languages are endangered. I wanted to find a way to make a difference in that area.”

Read more: The Star

These Radio Stations are Reviving Indigenous Languages

In the struggle to preserve Indigenous languages, community radio stations have emerged as a key tool to help mother tongues that were crushed under the weight of colonialism flourish once again.

What was once forbidden and punished by the Canadian government — the speaking of one’s own language — can be heard with a turn of the dial.

Many radio stations in Indigenous communities feature a sprinkling of language lessons, but two in particular are making it their programming mandate to heavily push out language content.

The Nuxalk Radio station, in British Columbia’s beautiful Bella Coola valley, has become a model of sorts, delivering language programming that aims to uplift and empower the Nuxalkmc, that count 893 members living in Bella Coola.

The station was launched amid the Idle No More movement, when a group of people came together to figure out how Nuxalk could participate in the resistance, and their plan homed in on saving their language. They had only 11 elder speakers left at that time, and four years later, there are four fluent first-language speakers.

The radio station dedicates almost half of its airtime to language learning. The hosts are taught by a fluent speaker on how to speak Nuxalk, and then share what they’ve learned on-air. Programming includes basic word and definition, and there’s a daily lesson with the alphabet.

“Nuxalk language is really challenging to pronounce,” says Banchi Hanuse, the station’s manager. “There’s a lot of glottal throat sounds so learning the alphabet is almost like step one.”

They use First Voices, a web-based Indigenous language tool administered by the First Peoples Cultural Council, which assists in the documentation and education of Indigenous languages, and hosts 47 languages in B.C. All the hosts play audio or look up a word from First Voices, says Hanuse. Nuxalk Radio also airs archival language recordings, such as elders speaking with anthropologists, linguists, and ethnobotanists many years ago.

The hard work has begun to pay off in the community. Hanuse says that because of residential schools that removed children from Indigenous communities and forbade them from speaking their languages, there’s almost a subconscious shame in speaking one’s mother tongue. Hearing it on the radio has made the Nuxalk people more comfortable in speaking the language to each other.

“You do hear it a lot more, basically things like hello, thank you, good morning, you can hear people embracing it and introducing themselves in Nuxalk,” says Hanuse. “It’s a major psychological shift that’s happening in the community, as part of who we are again, proud of the language.”

In addition, they’ve passed along their knowledge of operating a language-focused radio station to other nations, helping the neighbouring Tsilhqot’in and Heiltsuk nations to get their radio stations started.

Read more: Vice News

What is killing Mexico’s rich indigenous languages?

“I speak the sounds of the people of the rain” – If you ask the Mixteco people about their first language, the reply is just one example of Mexico’s rich linguistic diversity. Yet linguists, artists and human rights defenders are warning that Mexico is becoming increasingly monotone – and that discrimination, as well as repressive assimilation policies by the state, are partly responsible for their death.

Maya, Mazahua, Zapotec: Mexico’s 68 native languages are under attack. Earlier this week, a letter written to incoming President AMLO by linguists that warns that Mexico’s linguistic heritage, “one of the richest and most diverse in the world”, is increasingly being replaced by Spanish.

However, this is not just a case of a new generation switching to a ‘lingua franca’ for practical reasons. Instead, many accuse discrimination of society but also the state as responsible.

“I was still beaten in the hand for speaking my language at school”, claims Mexican linguist Yásnaya Aguilar. As a member of the National Institute of Indigenous Languages, she accuses the state of severe cases of systematic discrimination and violence against children speaking an indigenous language.

“In 2006 a girl was reported to have been hung upside down as punishment for speaking Nahuatl in class; in 2005 an Otomi girl could not be registered with her name in her own language because the civil registry did not allow it; and in 2015 high school students were punished with going to wash the bathrooms if they spoke chantino in school”, Yásnaya Aguilar reported at an anti-discrimination workshop held earlier this year.

While these are very drastic cases, there is a general sense of public discrimination against speaking an indigenous language.

Read more: Aztec Reports

Gurrumul and Indigenous languages offer windows into Australia’s past and present

There’s a scene towards the end of the film Gurrumul, directed by Paul Daniel Williams screening in cinemas now, that stays with me.

Set in a record store, somewhere in the United States, we hear innocuous guitar strumming in the background as people obliviously browse albums.

Then vocals. In an instant, everyone stops, puts down the album they’re holding, and stares at something we can’t see. It’s like they don’t know what’s drawing them, but one by one they walk to the back of the store.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, from Elcho Island in Arnhem Land, Australia, is performing live in a language we can probably assume none of them have ever heard. He has them transfixed.

The film and accompanying album Djarramirri — Child of the Rainbow were released in April, almost a year after Gurrumul’s death. The film has remained unchanged from when the artist approved it three days before his tragic death at age 46 last July.

The film is filled with incredible music and awkward moments. But, it’s an awkwardness that tells a story about working across vastly different cultures and languages. It is also about the enormous pressure facing people like Gurrumul, who live in two worlds and code-switch constantly. It’s an awkwardness we need to see.

Read more: Green Left Weekly

How AI is helping preserve Indigenous languages

Australia’s Indigenous population is rich in linguistic diversity, with over 300 languages spoken across different communities.

Some of the languages can be as distinct as Japanese is to German.

But many are at risk of becoming extinct because they are not widely accessible and have little presence in the digital space.

Professor Janet Wiles is a researcher with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, known as CoEDL, which has been working to transcribe and preserve endangered languages.

She says one of the biggest barriers to documenting languages is transcription.

“How transcription is done at the moment is linguists select small parts of the audio that might be unique words, unique situations or interesting parts of grammar, and they listen to the audio and they transcribe it,” she told SBS News.

The CoEDL has been researching 130 languages spoken across Australia and neighbouring countries like Indonesia.

Their work involves going into communities and documenting huge amounts of audio. So far, they have recorded almost 50,000 hours.

Transcribing the audio using traditional methods is estimated to take two million hours, making it a painstaking and near impossible task.

Knowing time is against them, Professor Wiles and her colleague Ben Foley turned to artificial intelligence.

Read more: SBS News

Calls for national legislation to protect Indigenous languages in Australia

Craig Ritchie, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), suggests Australia could follow in the footsteps of New Zealand, which introduced the Māori Language Act in 1987, thereby giving Māori official language status.

“Under that, every government agency has an obligation to make sure that the work that they do preserves and perpetuates the Māori language,” Mr Ritchie says.

“That might be something to think about in the legislative space.”

The Dunghutti and Biripi man was the keynote speaker at Australia’s first National Indigenous Languages Convention on the Gold Coast. Part of the federal government’s $10 million commitment to protect First Nations languages, the convention brought experts together to discuss the role of digital technology in language preservation.

Australia has been identified as one of the top five endangered language hot spots in the world. Of the estimated 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, about 120 are still spoken, but most are severely or critically endangered.

Mr Ritchie told the crowd that Australia needed to follow New Zealand’s lead by bringing language into the public domain, making culture more visible in public spaces such as airports, and weaving simple greetings or words into news broadcasts or television programs.

“We’ll know we’ve succeeded when they’re using Aboriginal language on Home and Away,” he laughed.

Read more: SBC

Making history by saving it: UW groups keep indigenous languages alive

When Alyssa Johnston and members of her tribe speak to one another in Quinault, they are often moved to tears by the knowledge that, at the turn of the century, the language was all but dead.

The last person who spoke fluent Quinault passed away in 1996. By using recordings of those who spoke the language in the 1960s, a handful of people in the Olympic Peninsula tribe are slowly and painstakingly piecing it back together — and teaching it to a new generation.

Last year, Johnston was the first person in recent memory to earn a world-language credit at the University of Washington by showing she had achieved “intermediate low-level proficiency” in that language.

“It’s everything to me,” Johnston said of the importance of reviving her tribe’s native tongue. “Language is culture,” she said, and the tribe “right now is literally making history” by bringing it back.

Every two weeks, two separate groups gather around a table in one building or another to practice one of two indigenous languages: Southern Lushootseed, the common tongue of the Native American tribes that lived in this region, and Hawaiian, the native language of the indigenous people of Hawaii.

Chris Teuton, chair of American Indian Studies at the UW, hopes students eventually will be able to learn both those languages in for-credit courses, joining the 55 other languages already taught by the university.

In the meantime, the informal classes are a labor of love for the volunteers who teach them. Nancy Jo Bob, a member of the Lummi Nation, and Tami Kay Hohn, of the Puyallup Tribe, both drive up from Auburn every month to offer several hours of language instruction, using a system they devised that helps students think and speak in complete sentences from the outset.

Lushootseed was revived by Upper Skagit author, teacher and linguist Vi Hilbert, who died in 2008 at the age of 90. Hilbert taught Lushootseed for credit at the UW until her retirement in 1988, and it has been taught intermittently at the university since then, along with Navajo and Yakama.

Lushootseed’s sentence structure is different from English, and includes sounds that don’t exist in English.

Read more: Seattle Times