The Negative Implications of COVID and Indigenous People’s Language

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Time and research continue to prove that minority groups have been the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Indigenous communities have had a devastating and challenging side effect to deal with: the loss of their ancient languages. 

As the virus reaches these groups, elders and leaders have been dying, resulting in a massive loss of knowledge and wisdom within their respective cultures. 

Before the outbreak, a third of the remaining 6,800 languages in the world were at risk of extinction. UNESCO reports that 600 languages are endangered while 150 are spoken by a maximum of 10 people. Between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages had gone extinct, and many linguists are estimating that half of the remaining ones will be obsolete by the end of the century.

In many communities, elders are synonymous with being the language keepers. Traditionally, they impart their knowledge about the language and the ancient cultures through gathering, cultural events, and multigenerational stewardship. Since COVID-19 has forced isolation upon community members, this kind of ritualistic preservation has slowed and halted. 

“When someone from an older generation passes, they take with them the historical knowledge, cultural knowledge, and the language itself,” said Dr. Annamaria Paolino in an article for SBS news. “That’s the risk that COVID-19 can pose because the younger generations don’t have that resource to go to.” 

The elderly population is the most vulnerable, and, as a result, the virus has taken the last remaining speakers of many ancient languages that were already threatened to go extinct. 

Globally, linguists have led efforts to record and archive many of these endangered languages, but even these efforts have posed a risk. 

In Australia, a mission to archive words with the last fluent speaker of Warriyanga and Thiinma, Peter Salmon, was stopped to protect the 86-year-old man. With a strong interest in passing it on, Peter Salmon would have been recalling the names of plants, animals, and other cultural information to be preserved in a two-week expedition to document these names. This is part of an ongoing effort to preserve as much of Australia’s ancient linguistic legacy as possible. 

In Brazil, Amazonian indigenous groups are particularly vulnerable to dying of COVID-19 because of how far they can be from professional medical help. At least 38 indigenous nations in Amazonia have become affected.

 Statistics from the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil showed that indigenous people are dying nearly double the rate of the general Brazilian populations back in June, and the trend has remained consistent. 

These numbers have proved to be a significant threat to smaller tribes like the Puruborá, who have lost a few of the last remaining people to speak the language. Only two semi-fluent elders are left, and both are highly susceptible to catching the virus. 

In their own efforts to preserve languages, the Puruborá were part of a project to record and archive the language with the Emílio Goeldi Paraense Museum. Part of what was contributing to the loss of the language’s remnants was the lack of contact with it. Amid isolation, the risk becomes greater. 

The last speaker of one of the world’s oldest surviving languages spoken in the Bay of Bengal, Sare, lives in India. The language is estimated to date back 70,000 years and is one of the two surviving languages of the Great Andamanic family of languages. 

While Indian scholar and linguist Anvita Abbi has spent decades studying the Sare language, she acknowledges that the languages’ nuances are lost each time a foundational member of the community is lost.

While many of the younger generations have put enormous effort into learning, preserving, archiving, and teaching the language, it becomes a challenge to encourage others to use it as well. 

Serving as a tapestry of cultures unbeknownst to most, preserving these languages is crucial to what we understand about the evolution of humanity. 

In the words of Dr. Annamaria Paolino, “it would be a good thing for people at home to be engaging with languages. It’s what makes a culture and helps us connect and understand other cultures. Given how globalized our world is, it’s important we think about what languages bring to humanity as a whole.”