• Matt Windsor

Why are Indigenous Languages Important?

Art by Elizabeth Jancewicz, from Dancing Ants (Naskapi legend)

When we tell people we work in indigenous language development, Christians usually understand our work in terms of making the Bible accessible to people in a language they can understand. They (and we) believe the compiled writings of the Bible are instrumental for people to understand the true nature of their Creator and thrive in relationship with him. This was the main motivation that I had in high school when I chose to pursue linguistics – I had found a new freedom and purpose in my relationship with God and I wanted others to have the same opportunity.

But sometimes the story gets a little more complicated than that. For example, what if most people who speak Naskapi, for example, also speak English? If understanding the Bible is the only goal, the younger generations can just use an English Bible, no work needed! In a generation or two, everyone will speak English and the situation will take care of itself. Yet the Naskapi still consider it important to have the Bible in their own language, and to keep their language alive into future generations. A lot of people ask us “Why, though?” and it’s an important question to ask.

Sometimes when I answer the question, I simply emphasize the number of people who still speak indigenous languages at their mother tongue in remote communities. I also like to emphasize that speakers of indigenous languages feel a huge difference in the way they connect to the Bible when it’s written in their own language, even when they could read it in English.

For example, while we were visiting the Naskapi one woman told us she felt like it “completed her somehow” to read the Bible in Naskapi. This is actually a common sentiment among Christians who speak minority languages, because they feel like God is identifying with them in their own language, not through a foreign intermediary. Translating the Bible into Naskapi represents the fact that God is equally the creator of the Naskapi, that He speaks Naskapi, and that He relates directly to them where they are.

But even apart from Bible translation proper, I believe there are good reasons for helping smaller languages survive, and for viewing this as a valuable ministry. Why should we care about minority languages? I want to share some quick perspectives I read in a book called “Sustaining Language Use” by Lewis & Simons (2015). They talk about of the various rationales that motivate language activists and then share their perspective of how these relate to Christian theology.

1. The Humanitarian Rationale

All over the world, indigenous communities experience various kinds of social upheaval when they start to lose their language and culture, because such sharp breaks in cultural continuity create a kind of social identity displacement. Lewis & Simons summarize this situation well:

“Members of a community which is in the process of losing its language and culture experience significant amounts of disruption and stress in all areas of life. A child growing up in a community which is viewed with disdain develops a self-image that reflects that experience. As social norms are abandoned, they frequently are not replaced all at once or with adequate equivalents. This can lead to social tensions, divisions in the community, disruptive and harmful patterns of behavior, and even violence. There is evidence that communities experiencing such a transition may have elevated levels of alcoholism, drug addiction, HIV/AIDS, and suicide.”

People in minority communities always need to make decisions about which cultural knowledge they will pass on to their children, and which language they will use to do so. But sometimes they don’t know what the outcomes of those decisions could be, or they’re unaware of some of the options available to them to help sustain their culture. So community linguists can provide a valuable service by bringing some wider perspective to the “costs and benefits of any… language development decisions” as they navigate the process of cultural change (p.37).

2. The Human Rights Rationale

There is a growing movement in international policy to recognize “the rights of individuals and communities to maintain their distinctive identities and to use their own languages” (Lewis & Simons p.37-8). For example, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.” (Article 13.1)

Part of the issue here is that language and culture are so closely tied to a person’s identity. It can be hard for people from majority cultures (like English Canada) to appreciate oppression that indigenous peoples can feel just from the constant pressure to assimilate – to change who they are and who their children will be. I’ve personally never felt like I needed to defend my right to keep my cultural identity because it’s never been threatened. But this is a practical, everyday issue for many people, especially in communities who view their experience as a continuation of their ancestors’.

In Canada, defending indigenous cultural rights involves acknowledging the historical context of the residential schools, which were used by the Canadian government to assimilate Canada’s indigenous peoples. As the Church, we have the opportunity now to be leaders of cultural reconciliation in our country, and to support the right of indigenous peoples to forge their own cultural identities.

3. The Ecological Rationale

The “ecological rationale” boils down to a value on maintaining “diversity,” be it ecological, cultural, biological, or otherwise (p.39). Indigenous cultures have “highly developed bodies of knowledge about their physical environment” – knowledge that tends to focus on the complex relationships between everything in a local ecosystem (p.39). This knowledge is usually transmitted in language-specific traditions. With loss of the language comes loss of huge bodies of knowledge – long oral histories, properties of local plants and animals, philosophical perspectives and so on. So when languages and cultures disappear, the global community loses the diversity of knowledge and experience that exists on this planet.

From a Christian standpoint, I think this additionally applies within the global church. The more culturally diverse the Church is, the more we can learn from each others’ diverse experiences and ways of understanding God. As a quick example, think of the way we interpret the Bible. Different aspects of the Biblical narrative stand out to readers from different cultures.

A Canadian Christian is more likely to remember and quote a verse like “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young” (1 Tim 4:12), whereas someone from elsewhere might be more likely to remember the command “Stand up in the presence of the elderly, and show respect for the aged” (Lev.19:32 – I had to look that one up myself). The Canadian is more likely to study the Bible by memorizing single verses in the first place, rather than by re-telling the story of Genesis in their own words to a group of children. By maintaining cultural diversity within the church, we are better equipped to learn from each others’ spiritual perspectives. A vision of a united global Church doesn’t mean a vision of a homogeneous global Church.

4. The Academic Rationale

Linguists and anthropologists study patterns in the world’s languages and cultures to explore how they work and find clues into their histories. This kind of research relies on the world’s cultural and linguistic diversity for “data.” The benefits are usually long-term in nature, as our research gradually increases our knowledge, which eventually affects the way we approach everyday problems (Lewis & Simons, p.40). Problems like “How is teaching a class of Naskapi children different than teaching an elementary class in BC?” or “How might I need to communicate differently if I move to teach English in Saudi Arabia?” or “How do we translate an ancient Hebrew term like messiah into a language like Naskapi?”

Ideological Frameworks and Biblical Theology

Lewis & Simons summarize with a discussion of ideology: everyone approaches language issues with an ideological perspective that influences the decisions they make. For example, placing a high value on diversity is an ideological orientation (p. 40). Since the authors come from a Christian perspective, they outline how they see language work relating to Christian theology. I thought the section was so insightful I want to quote it here in full (from p. 41):

“Our concern for the preservation and development of local language communities and the languages they speak is rooted specifically in the perspective of the Judeo-Christian scriptures that diversity of peoples, languages, and cultures is a cornerstone of God’s creation. Further, we understand that the Creator’s intent for humankind and all of creation was that it exist in a state of shalom—completeness, wholeness, peace, and well-being. As we read the biblical creation narrative (Genesis 1-2) and as we look at the created order itself, we see the Creator’s delight in diversity and abundance. Further, we see the responsibility given to humankind to “name” the diversity of creation as a divine endorsement of language expansion. We do not see the biblical narrative of the confusion of tongues at Babel (Genesis 11) as placing a curse on humanity but as restoring the Creator’s original intent for diversity to fill the earth. And we are inspired by the apocalyptic visions of both the Hebrew Bible (Daniel 7:14) and the Christian New Testament (Revelation 7:9) that reveal an uncountable throng of worshippers including every people and nation and language. At the same time, the Judeo-Christian ethic of loving one’s neighbor and serving the marginalized compels us to assist local language communities who are struggling to sustain their language and identity as part of their quest for well-being and wholeness. Given this foundational ideological stance, the following are some general principles that we affirm:
  1. Diversity of species, identities, cultures, and languages reflects the Creator’s original intent that the created order be “fruitful and multiply.”

  2. All human beings, as part of the creation, are valuable, worthy of dignity in their own right, and their creativity in language and culture is to be valued as part of the diversity of creation. This also requires us to treat members of local communities with respect as the primary agents and decision makers in their own language development planning and implementation.

  3. The maintenance and restoration of each language and culture is an activity that mankind can participate in and is a worthwhile goal in re-establishing shalom.

  4. While human solutions often rely on scientific and technological efforts (“let us build a tower that will reach to heaven”), there is ample evidence both in the biblical text and all around us that such solutions often do damage to the creation in ways that are unforeseen and unexpected. Therefore, we approach language development interventions with a great deal of caution and humility, recognizing that our methods, technologies, and theories are, at best, merely imperfect tools and not “solutions.”

I’ll end by just saying that it is possible for indigenous languages to survive (and thrive) into the future, co-existing with English or other dominant languages. Lots of places in the world have stable bilingual communities that allow indigenous people to participate in their larger national context, but also maintain what distinguishes them as a cohesive, indigenous culture. The challenge is working to keep these systems sustainable. So that’s why we see “language development” as a valuable aspect of our ministry in Bible translation.