Can you think of a person in your life–a stranger specifically–that made an impression on you? Mine is Celsa (pronounced sell-sah). I met Celsa when I traveled to Yucatán to celebrate my birthday years back, during a visit to a small villa in Uxmal, close to the archeological zones for dinner. Determined to explore the villa, I stumbled upon Celsa who was preparing her afternoon work making textiles; a set of placemats that was ordered by a recurring client of hers. With Celsa’s permission, I sat down with her while she continued working, during which she gave me a quick run-down for the Mayan names of each piece that makes up her backstrap loom which as Celsa was proud to tell me, her mother had taught her to make ever since she was a child. Absolutely everything made by Celsa down to the very tools she uses to weave tapestries were created by her or someone in her family.
Celsa’s story is similar to the majority of Mayan people within Yucatán: Like her, many of Yucatan’s Mayan speakers currently residing there come from smaller towns populated solely by varying Mayan communities. They all travel to the different tourist locations like Uxmal and set up shop. I remember being completely blown away by everything that Celsa was able to tell me about: from her family to the brief language lessons she gave me in the most broken Spanish possible. Celsa had a story to tell, a piece of her history for me to take with me and share however I could, and it’s something that I not only remember fondly, but also feel thankful for.
As of ten years ago, Yucatán boasted a Mayan-speaking population of 520,440, though according to the CDI in Mexico, that number jumped to 800,000 in 2016. Yucatec Mayan is the second most common indigenous language in Mexico, the first being Náhuatl. While both languages are very safe from ever becoming extinct due to a few different national universities officially teaching the language, there are close to 3,000 languages worldwide that will go extinct by the end of the century – according to UNESCO’s Endangered Language Programme. Within Mexico alone, there are two distinct stories that have gotten my attention:
- Ayapaneco, spoken by two men who until 2014, allegedly refused to speak to each other.
- Kiliwa, who in 2014 only had 6 speakers left according to National Geographic and in 2019 was reported to only have 3 speakers left.
These are two of at least 60+ languages within Mexico that are on the brink of extinction right now, more of which will become extinct in the coming years. Within the United States, UNESCO lists an approximate 192 languages that range from vulnerable to become extinct all the way to already extinct. There are plenty of historic and cultural reasons why a language should be preserved, and equally important should be the effort to continue promoting diversity and inclusion into our nation’s society by ensuring their preservation.
The impact that COVID-19 has had on indigenous communities is something that is only half discussed lately and should be fully addressed. We know about the disparities that underrepresented communities face during these times, but one of the consequences that we don’t often hear about is that languages have been dying out as a result.
“Somehow, people have not yet woken up to the deaths of these languages,” said Anvita Abbi, an Indian scholar who spent two decades studying the Sare language, only to see its final speaker die this year. “This is how languages die: gradually, gradually, gradually, then suddenly.”
– Excerpt taken from the Washington Post
In an interview conducted by Borgen Magazine with Joshua Raclaw, an associate professor of linguistics at West Chester University, we can attribute monolingualism to being a large part of language discrimintation, such is the example of the Chinese language being used as a state of control in the 1940’s.
So how we do we save a language from becoming extinct and essentially avoid linguistic (and cultural) genocide? Within W. James Jacob’s research on linguistic genocide, he cites four strategies that can be utilized to help preserve these dying languages:
- Parents Are Central to Indigenous Language Preservation
Languages such as Celsa’s Mayan dialect (one of five Mayan sub-families) should be encouraged by family. Parents and grandparents are essential to keeping this language alive by teaching future generations and henceforth these generations teaching their own.
- Indigenous Peoples Must Be Involved
The indigenous communities themselves should take a more proactive stance in promoting their language, as it also empowers them and instills a sense of ownership and unity when doing so.
- Governments Should Play a Leading Role
Going back to the Ayapaneco case, the Mexican government worked alongside the two remaining speakers of this language to develop an Ayapaneco dictionary. In addition to this, one of the speakers and his son were allowed to teach the language within an institution in an effort to preserve the language.
- Leverage Advances in Technology
As a society and first-world country, we have access to a plethora of digital tools and software that was not easily accessible in previous years, all of which can and should be used to document languages. An example of this comes from Centro Cultural de España en México (CCEMX)’s app developers which have developed kid-friendly apps for iOS and Android where the user can learn indigenous languages such as Náhuatl, Mixteco, and Purépecha.
Invitation for further reading: Strategies for Overcoming Linguistic Genocide: How to Avoid Macro-aggressions and Micro-aggressions that Lead Toward Indigenous Language Annihilation, written by W. James Jacob
As we continue moving forward with developing new D&I-driven systems that will help develop and retain diverse and inclusive environments, it’s important that we take into consideration the languages that we can help preserve in an effort to maintain our nation’s diverse cultures. By preserving these languages, we’re also preserving years and years of history and stories that were likely to be passed down from one generation to the next.