NYU Initiative Helps Save Indigenous Languages From Extinction

ConversemosCOVID BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of clacsnyublog.com

While the world’s linguistic diversity is declining dramatically, communities and New York’s universities are fighting back with initiatives to keep indigenous languages alive during times of COVID. 

The NYU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies has launched the initiative  “Conversemos COVID-19/Let’s Talk COVID-19,” offering information about the pandemic in various indigenous and diasporic languages widely spoken in New York. 

Using this language is not only a political statement by their part, but an act that assures no one gets left behind with information during this health crisis.  

Communicating in a language is preserving it. Like the MIT language activist Ken Hale once said, if we lose any of the world’s languages, “it is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre,” an act that destroys thousands of years of accumulated human knowledge and experience. 

The initiative includes text and video capsules translated into eight languages, including Quechua, Haitian Kreyol, Nahuatl, Mixtec, Garifuna, and Kichwa. As part of its academic program, CLACS at NYU offers two language programs in Haitian Kreyòl and Quechua. 

Kreyòl is spoken by most of the population in Haiti, and Quechua is an Andean indigenous language spoken by over 10 million people, designated a priority language by the Department of Education. Quechua is the most widely spoken native language in the Americas.

The video capsules are created as part of a collaborative process headed by the Indigenous and Diasporic Language Collaborative. Their members include the Mexican Studies Institute at Lehman College, Kichwa Hatari, and the Summer Linguistics School of Bolivia. 

This inspiring collaboration between community organizations and academic institutions is making a difference. The collective Kichwa Hatari, for instance, works as uniting Kichwa artists, activists, and educators through radio and community programming, which in their words, is aimed at “revolutionizing radio airwaves as it is about cultural and linguistic empowerment.”

Kichwa is a Quechuan language that includes all Quechua varieties of Ecuador and Colombia (Inga), as well as extensions into Peru. The language has an estimated 1,000,000 speakers, but it is often rendered invisible among Ecuadorians and the broader Latino community despite its sizable population. 

Since the 1990s, indigenous communities from Ecuador have migrated to the United States, particularly to New York City and other urban centers, to escape an economic recession that affected the indigenous peoples the hardest. 

“We are very proud to be able to launch the first in a series of short videos titled ‘Let’s Talk COVID-19,’ available in 13 indigenous and diasporic languages, including #Kichwa, #Quechua (Peru & Bolivia), #Mixteco, #Garifuna, #Kreyol (Haitian), #Nahuatl (Huasteca & Sierra Norte Puebla). This project has been made possible thanks to a special collaboration between Kichwa Hatari, CLACS NYU, CUNY Mexican Studies Institute, and Kichwa artists Adina Farinango y Pancarita Farinango,” announced Kichwa Hatari on its website. 

In the first installation, the initiative talks about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on indigenous peoples’ mental health. This version and others can be seen here. Other episodes will focus on mask-wearing and returning to work safely, among other topics.  

The linguist Leanne Hinton equates language preservation as a human rights issue saying: “The decline of linguistic diversity in the world is linked to the world political economy which invades and takes over the territories of indigenous peoples, threatens the ecosystems in which they live, wipes out their traditional means of livelihood, and (at best) turns them into low-caste laborers in the larger society in which they must now live on the margins.” 

The reality is that this language genocide means that hundreds of the world’s languages are down to a few speakers. But only in the last two decades has the general public recognized the scale of the problem, and the work is just beginning. The NYU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies initiative “Let’s Talk COVID-19” is a step in the right direction. Let’s keep languages and their cultures alive by using them.