Triumphs and Initiatives in Preserving Indigenous Languages Across Asia

Preserving Asian indigenous languages is a critical aspect of bolstering sustainability efforts. In fact, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2022-2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. The reason for this is a growing recognition that these languages play an essential role in protecting the environment and fostering good governance and peacebuilding.

However, many of these languages are disappearing and are considered endangered due to a lack of local initiatives to preserve them. While only 3% of the global population speaks around 4,000 indigenous languages, it is estimated that we are facing a loss of at least one world language every two weeks. This means that most can become extinct by 2100 if we don’t take action now.

That’s why several communities in Asia are taking steps to preserve their Asian indigenous languages. Keep reading to find out why this is important and what some of these initiatives are.

The importance of preserving Asian indigenous languages

Preserving Asian indigenous languages has multiple benefits, not least of which include the following:

  • They are the cornerstone of cultural identity: Asian indigenous languages embody the history, traditions, and customs of indigenous people. These languages often provide valuable insights into communities’ ways of life and they also offer a unique perspective of the world. As such, preserving these languages means preserving important cultural heritage.
  • They contain valuable environmental knowledge: Secondly, indigenous languages provide insights into the environment and the relationship between people and nature. They have unique knowledge of local ecosystems and resources, making it a fundamental aspect of sustainable management of natural resources.
  • They represent vast linguistic diversity: Preserving Asian indigenous languages is critical to maintaining linguistic diversity and promoting cultural pluralism. With around 7,000 languages spoken around the world, this is a testament to the vast diversity of human language.

Case studies of successful Asian indigenous language revitalization efforts

Understanding the importance of preserving Asian indigenous languages, it must be noted that some communities in Asia are taking bold steps to address the loss of linguistic diversity and cultural heritage through concerted efforts that aim to retain the use and sharing of knowledge through Asian indigenous languages. Below are just a few examples of these initiatives.

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Papua New Guinea

First up, we have Papua New Guinea—one of the world’s most linguistically and floristically diverse countries. It is home to around 840 languages and approximately 5% of the world’s biodiversity.

One initiative that aims to preserve the linguistic heritage in this country included a pilot project in the Solomon Islands, which required students at all levels of education to complete assignments documenting indigenous environmental knowledge in their indigenous language, Marovo, as part of the regular school curriculum.

This project was the first of its kind for approximately 90% of the participating students, who had to write a substantial text in their own indigenous language. The result was that the connections between local knowledge and science was strengthened through the use of indigenous languages in education.

Another initiative in the Pacific Islands is involving community members, especially women, to share Ancestral Voyaging Knowledge (AVK) through online curriculum resources.

Bangladesh

Bangladesh is home to over 54 indigenous peoples, which comprise nearly one million of the total population. Around 80% of these people live in flatland districts in the north and southeast of the country. The remainder typically reside in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Apart from the official language of Bengali, indigenous people in Bangladesh speak around 35 different languages with their own alphabets and intonations. However, they are facing pressure from the dominant culture.

Some initiatives that have been taken to counter this challenge feature including texts in indigenous languages and teachers from indigenous groups at the preschool level. Furthermore, the government has distributed books to preschools in five Indigenous languages: Chakma, Garo, Kokborok, Marma, and Sadri. However, the lack of qualified teachers who speak these languages remains limited. Also, there are no plans as yet that have been offered for mother-tongue education at higher levels.

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In 2022, UNESCO, in collaboration with The Asia Foundation and the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, launched the project Hooked on Peace: Promoting Positive Peace through Indigenous and Local Language Digital Storytelling. Hooked on Peace will use digital storytelling in the indigenous languages of Asia to promote youth development and intergenerational dialogue, mother-tongue education, digital literacy, gender equality, and preservation of indigenous heritage and practices.

In Bangladesh, Hooked on Peace will bring young and old together in two ethnic communities to share and document traditional narratives. The stories will be developed by young indigenous people through dialogue within their own ethnic communities, and will then become the basis for a series of digital publications, in indigenous languages, that promote traditional practices and solutions for peacebuilding and sustainability. These stories will then be released to the public on February 21, 2024, in celebration of International Mother Language Day.

India

More than 200 languages have disappeared in India in the past 50 years and another 197 are considered at risk. However, this situation is changing slowly as a growing number of grassroots initiatives are attempting to preserve the cultural heritage of indigenous tribes.

Here are a few examples of these:
asian indigenous people

  • In 2001, at the age of 17, Banwang Losu began to think about a writing system for Wancho, his mother tongue, spoken mainly in Arunachal Pradesh, instead of using Latin letters. In 2019, the alphabet he developed through almost 20 years of research was included in the international Unicode system.
  • In 2008, Malati Murmu founded a newspaper, the Fagun, in the Santali language, with an initial circulation of only 500 copies. The Ol Chiki script was invented in 1925 by writer Ragunath Murmu. His ultimate aim? To protect the Santali language and literature and to promote tribal culture. Its circulation now averages around 5,000 printed copies.
  • In 2013, India’s Education Ministry established the Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages (SPPEL) “to document and archive the country’s languages that have become endangered or likely to be endangered in the near future.”
  • In 2014, journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary created CGNet Swara, an online platform dedicated to issues related to the central region of Gondwana, with stories and news in the Gondi language. Anyone, anywhere in India, can report stories on this platform by making a phone call to a number linked to it. The stories are available for playback online and over the phone. While the Gondi language is spoken by two million people, only 100 can write it.
  • In 2021, in the eastern state of Odisha, where most Indian Adivasis live, state authorities decided that elementary school textbooks would be published in 21 tribal languages using the Oriya alphabet with the exception of Santali, which can continue to use Ol Chiki.
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Conclusion

When it comes to preserving Asian indigenous languages, some strides have been made to address this issue although much work remains to be done. We can only salute the Ainu of Japan where their learning system focuses on elders teaching the language to their youth.

In addition, the Schools of Living Tradition in different indigenous communities in the Philippines also keep their cultural forms such as language alive. However, these isolated cases need to become the norm as opposed to being an anomaly or an exception to the rule.