Back in 1921, Edward Sapir suggested that the relationship between language and thought was more complex than we imagined.
Indeed, we now know that language is not merely a means of communication—it is much more than that. Language is “the mold of thought.” It is the symbolic system through which we think and experience our human world. We make sense of every aspect of our human reality through concepts, which are codified in language: love, hate, success, war, life, death, friendship, motherhood, good, evil, and so on.
Each unique language constitutes a distinct way of existing in the world and carries its own distinct set of interpretations of reality. For instance, the word “love” in English does not necessarily convey the same meaning as its equivalent in Yucatec Mayan (yaakunaj) or in Anishinaabe (zaagi'idiwin). Each of these concepts carries specific connotations that will affect the way love is experienced by that community of speakers.
Reality itself seems to be different depending upon the language that we use to interact with it. Languages like English and Spanish have two distinct words for the verbs “to want” (querer) and “to need” (necesitar). However, in the Halq’eméylem language, these seemingly different realities are expressed in one single word (stl'í). The same is true for the Nahuatl language, in which “to want something” or “to need something” is conceptualized as one and the same reality, and thus, there is only one word for it (neki). Certainly, for the native speakers of these languages, it makes no sense to want something that you don’t need, or to need something that you don’t want. It is, linguistically, not possible.
Indigenous languages share a deep connection to the land and territory. Many Indigenous languages conceptualize the natural world as a living entity that interacts with our human world in much the same way as one would interact with the sacred and the divine. In the Nahuatl language, for instance, the words for stars (sitlalin), mountains (tepetl), trees (kuawitl), and other elements of Nature are inflected in the same way as words associated with the human world. Nature is thus conceived as a living entity.
Unfortunately, this diversity of human experiences and worldviews encoded in Indigenous languages is ever more at risk of disappearing. The number of speakers of Indigenous languages is rapidly declining due to the common history of colonialism that has violently afflicted the nations of this continent. In Canada alone, the Endangered Languages Project identifies 73 different languages at risk, of which almost half are native to BC.
According to Statistics Canada, “the number of Indigenous people reporting an Indigenous language as the language they first learned at home in childhood continues to decline”—and those who do are mostly over 65 years old.
This decline is a direct consequence of the colonial violence that Indigenous Nations were subjected to all throughout the continent. From Canada to the US and Mexico, from Panama to Brazil, Indigenous Peoples have been and continue to be dispossessed, not only of their lands and resources, but also of their knowledge systems and cultural traditions.
Colonial systems of forced assimilation, such as the residential schools in Canada, or the Indigenista education policies in Latin America, deprived entire generations of Indigenous children of their languages. These were deemed to be somehow inferior to English, French, Spanish or Portuguese, and were violently suppressed as supposed remnants of a primitive past.
The underlying assumption in our modern societies is that academic and professional knowledge should be encoded in Western languages. Indigenous children are still left with no other choice but to adopt a colonial language if they want to navigate through the formal school system. There are few, if any, schools where Indigenous children can receive instruction in their own language. Indigenous languages are still assumed to be tied to a past that is withering away. Assuming that they will in fact disappear, some argue that languages should be documented before they die.
For many Indigenous people, however, native languages are neither a remnant of the past, nor are they destined to disappear.
Nevertheless, the sense of urgency remains. The threat is real.
Many Indigenous activists and other allies are indeed resisting and finding creative ways to strengthen their languages. These efforts range from the creation of language nests, cultural immersion programs, community workshops, and other specialized initiatives, to larger movements towards decolonization. Nonetheless, there is still a long path towards linguistic justice. And we risk losing part of our human diversity in the process.
Carlos Octavio Sandoval is a sociology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) and organizer of the Indigenous Languages and Cultures Beyond Borders symposium, open to the public, at KPU on January 22 and 23.