Excerpts from Distinguished Public Lecture, North-West University, Mahikeng Campus, South Africa, August 3, 2023
The significance of indigenous languages transcends mere communication. These languages possess immense social value, serving as the lifeblood of their respective communities. They play an important role in preserving and celebrating the rich cultural heritage passed down through generations. These forms of communication are more than means of exchanging information. They serve as portals that offer us the opportunity to understand cultures and histories of various groups of people. Through these windows, we can preserve and honour their symbols, knowledge, and traditions, ensuring they continue to thrive and be appreciated for future generations. The rise of “world languages”, due to globalization, is a significant concern as it endangers indigenous languages, pushing them perilously close to disappearing altogether. The pervasive dominance of Western cultures in influential regions such as the USA, UK, France, Germany, and China profoundly impacts the relevance and survival of indigenous languages. This influence poses a significant threat to these languages, putting them in a precarious position. It is crucial to prioritize urgent and focused revitalization programmes to protect these linguistic treasures and guarantee their continuous survival.
In the face of various obstacles, promising developments bring optimism for the reinvigoration and prosperity of indigenous languages. In an inspiring movement, certain communities have wholeheartedly embraced using their native languages in educational settings. By doing so, they are preserving their rich cultural heritage and ensuring that future generations can learn and sustain their ancestral traditions. This proactive approach to education is a testament to the deep-rooted value these communities place on their native tongues, recognizing them as vital tools for transmitting cultural knowledge. The emergence of indigenous media platforms offers a valuable opportunity to celebrate and showcase these languages and share their distinctive stories with a global audience.
Furthermore, the persistent utilization of regional jargon and colloquialisms on social media platforms serves as a means to safeguard the linguistic diversity and cultural expressions of indigenous communities. The potential influence that languages can have on social and cultural development is truly remarkable. However, we must continue to make sustained efforts to revive and promote these languages, even in the face of the challenges posed by globalization.
In a remarkable display of commitment to human rights, the Democratic Republic of Congo recently achieved a significant milestone after 14 years of tireless advocacy. In November 2022, the country passed the groundbreaking Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Pygmy Peoples Act. This landmark legislation represents a crucial step in safeguarding the cultural heritage and land rights of the nation’s indigenous communities, particularly the Pygmies. By enacting this law, the Democratic Republic of Congo has demonstrated its dedication to fostering inclusivity and ensuring the well-being of its diverse population. The implementation of this legislative intervention reflects the ongoing efforts of contemporary African nations to safeguard the survival and cultural legacy of indigenous communities. In addition to Kenya and Nigeria, South Africa has also made significant strides in safeguarding the rights of indigenous communities. Notably, South Africa has gone above and beyond by explicitly incorporating the cultural, linguistic, and religious rights of minorities into its constitution. This constitutional provision is a powerful testament to the country’s commitment to upholding its indigenous populations’ diverse heritage and identities. These countries are actively working towards creating an inclusive and equitable society for all by taking executive and legislative actions.
The notion of “indigeneity” in African societies is a multifaceted concept encompassing communities that have experienced displacement due to European colonialism and subsequent development. In recent times, there has been a significant surge in global endeavours to safeguard the rights of indigenous communities. The widespread acceptance and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People exemplifies this positive trend. The role of language in indigeneity is of great importance, as it serves as a powerful tool for cultural exchange and the safeguarding of knowledge. The emergence of colonialism and globalization has posed a significant challenge to the preservation and continuity of indigenous languages. Governments and organisations have implemented language revitalisation programmes to preserve endangered languages. The media has emerged as a vital player in this endeavour, contributing significantly to cultural production and facilitating language learning. However, we must make stronger and more comprehensive endeavours to combat the possible disappearance of countless indigenous languages and safeguard their invaluable cultural legacy.
The dynamic interplay of cultural exchanges, fueled by colonialism and globalization, exerts profound influences on language contact, shift, and the fostering of multiculturalism. The presence of European languages in Africa has posed a significant threat to the survival of indigenous languages on the continent. Globalization, often seen as amplifying Western cultural values, intensifies this pattern even more. The rich tapestry of African languages faces a pressing challenge as several teeter on the brink of extinction. This predicament is particularly pronounced in countries like Nigeria, where the widespread use of English has emerged as a dominant force, posing a significant threat to the survival of minority languages. The effects of globalization on language shift can be seen in various regions across the globe, including Canada and Mexico. In these areas, native languages are experiencing a decline as a result of the growing influence of more globally recognized languages like English and Spanish.
Despite the numerous challenges and potential risks, some scholars recognize the immense potential of globalization and modern communication media for revitalizing languages. Incorporating indigenous languages in rap music and social media illustrates how globalization’s infrastructures can be harnessed for positive purposes. By embracing these platforms, cultural expressions and linguistic artefacts can reach a wider audience, fostering a greater appreciation for diverse cultures. Nevertheless, the current emphasis on indigenous language trends highlights the ongoing exploration of using modern communication media to safeguard these languages’ vitality.
In the past century, the rate at which indigenous languages have disappeared is alarming. However, a positive shift is happening as more people recognize the immense value of these languages as crucial components of cultural heritage and identity. Technological advancements and the backing of public institutions have significantly strengthened the endeavours to safeguard and rejuvenate these languages. Efforts like immersion schools and bilingual education models have emerged to seamlessly incorporate indigenous languages into educational systems. These initiatives acknowledge the significance of these languages, not only for the preservation of cultural heritage but also for their potential to enrich the overall learning experience and improve educational outcomes.
The influence of media, encompassing both traditional and social platforms, has been instrumental in transforming how indigenous languages are perceived and encouraging their active use. The airing of television and radio programmes in indigenous languages has successfully captivated dedicated viewers and listeners, particularly among older people residing in areas with significant indigenous communities. Social media platforms have changed how we share and promote indigenous languages, empowering communities to preserve and celebrate their linguistic heritage. Obstacles remain, notably the issue of unfamiliarity with these languages.
The presence and utilisation of indigenous languages have undergone diverse transformations across various industries throughout history. The film industry, particularly Hollywood, has had a fascinating and intricate connection with indigenous languages. This relationship has recently evolved from problematic and stereotypical depictions to more considerate and authentic portrayals. The music industry has played a significant role in developing and preserving indigenous languages. Songs performed in local languages have not only gained popularity within their communities but have also garnered recognition and acceptance on a global scale.
The rapid progress of technology has opened up exciting new possibilities for language learning and the preservation of indigenous languages. With the advent of the internet and gamified learning applications, individuals now have unprecedented access to resources and tools to enhance their language skills and provide exposure to lesser-known languages. These advancements have revolutionised the way we approach language learning, making it more accessible, engaging, and inclusive than ever before. In the digital age, the accessibility and recognition of indigenous languages have been greatly enhanced thanks to the emergence of online platforms. These platforms, equipped with powerful translation APIs and comprehensive multi-language support, have opened new avenues for indigenous languages to flourish digitally. By leveraging these technologies, indigenous communities can connect with a wider audience, breaking down linguistic barriers and fostering a greater appreciation for their unique languages and cultures. This newfound accessibility empowers indigenous speakers to share their knowledge and stories and promotes inclusivity and diversity in the digital landscape. As a result, indigenous languages are gaining the recognition they deserve, enriching the online world with their rich linguistic heritage and contributing to the preservation of cultural diversity in the digital era. Integrating gamified learning applications in preserving endangered languages and their widespread adoption presents certain challenges.
Institutional attitudes towards language have significantly transformed over time. Previously characterised by linguistic imperialism, where dominant languages were prioritised and imposed, there has been a notable shift towards recognising and safeguarding indigenous languages. Significant changes bring attention to the need to promote linguistic diversity as well protect the rich cultural heritage embedded within indigenous languages. Various nations and esteemed organisations, such as the United Nations and UNESCO, have endeavoured to protect indigenous languages and actively encourage their resurgence. These initiatives involve implementing projects and enacting legislation to preserve and revitalise these invaluable linguistic treasures. The involvement of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has been instrumental in bolstering language preservation efforts, both on a local and global scale.
The decline of indigenous languages has far-reaching consequences, often resulting in poverty and marginalisation. This unfortunate trend restricts individuals’ opportunities to access education, secure employment, and receive adequate healthcare. Moreover, the profound influence of language on one’s sense of self and identity can harm mental health and overall well-being.
Indigenous languages are vital in preserving traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), acting as valuable repositories of wisdom that provide profound insights into human geography and cultural practices. The significance of these languages cannot be overstated when comprehending the intricate dynamics between human societies, diverse cultures, thriving economies, and the natural world. The transmission of indigenous people’s practises and beliefs regarding nature and reciprocity is intricately woven into the fabric of their language.
In the coming years, there will be a significant shift towards harnessing the power of indigenous languages to drive sustainable development, with a particular emphasis on areas such as conservation, biodiversity, and climate change. Exploring the realm of traditional practises and language opens up a world of possibilities for unearthing sustainable techniques in agriculture, land use management, and climate change adaptation. By delving into the wisdom of our ancestors, we can tap into a wealth of knowledge that has stood the test of time. These time-honoured practices offer invaluable insights into how we can navigate the challenges of our modern world while preserving the delicate balance of our environment. Through this journey of rediscovery, we have the opportunity to learn from the past and forge a path towards a more sustainable and resilient future. The integration of indigenous knowledge into contemporary planning has the potential to foster greater resilience and promote environmentally sustainable practices. This harmonious approach benefits the preservation of biodiversity and enhances the overall well-being of both humans and the natural world. By empowering indigenous communities to take the lead in conservation efforts using their languages, we can expect to see a significant improvement in the effectiveness and fairness of these strategies.
The profound worth of language cannot be overstated, particularly regarding indigenous languages that encapsulate our shared past, beliefs, cultures, and philosophical perspectives. Preserving endangered languages is a moral duty and a profound responsibility. These linguistic treasures offer unique insights into how humanity perceives and interacts with the world. By safeguarding these languages, we honour the rich cultural heritage they embody and ensure that future generations can benefit from the practical advantages they bring to our societies. In the past few years, government agencies, international organisations, and local communities have had a surge in initiatives to safeguard and record indigenous languages and their rich cultural heritage. These efforts have embraced various tools such as media, technology, and other innovative methods. In addition to government efforts, non-governmental agencies and indigenous communities play a vital role in actively contributing to these endeavours. The success of these preservation efforts holds the potential to empower indigenous languages, allowing them to maintain their vital roles in social and cultural development, going beyond mere communication. There is a growing aspiration for academia across the globe, including Africa, to actively support safeguarding indigenous languages. These languages are needed to preserve our rich historical narratives, ancestral heritage, and cultural identity. They serve as the roots that anchor us firmly to our collective past, much like a sturdy tree with deep foundations.