Tuning In: How Radio Stations Are Reviving Indigenous Languages

Indigenous Languages
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Indigenous cultures are in danger of extinction as many of the elder members of those communities are getting older and everything from their traditions to their native tongue are at risk of disappearing with them. This is especially true in certain indigenous cultures in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even in the United States — but radio stations in those countries are working to revive those native languages and bring that history and culture to a new generation.

And you thought radio stations were just for top 40 pop music charts and traffic news.  

In a time when it feels like indigenous cultures are suffering from modernization and a fear of the unfamiliar, radio stations all over the world are working to preserve the purity of indigenous languages and bring new life back to these dying cultures.

Defining Indigenous Cultures

By definition, indigenous peoples are culturally distinct societies, communities and ethnic groups that are the original settlers in a certain territorial region. They are tied to that geographical area and their livelihood, cultures, and identities are connected to the natural resources of the land where they live. According to the World Health Organization, “indigenous populations are communities that live within, or are attached to, geographically distinct traditional habitats or ancestral territories, and who identify themselves as being part of a distinct cultural group, descended from groups present in the area before modern states were created and current borders defined.”

Indigenous people may seem like a minority in some parts of the world, but globally they make up a much bigger portion of the population than you may have realized. Indigenous peoples make up more than 370 million of the world’s population, approximately 5%of the population, and they span across 90 countries in all corners of the world, per the UN.  

They have a vast knowledge of the natural world, health and even technology. And their complex languages — over 7,000 different languages — are deeply intertwined with who they are, what they value, and how they view the world. Their languages are extensive, complex systems according to the UN, and they are under attack; it is estimated that one indigenous language dies every two weeks. This is a scary reality and raises huge concerns for the future of these indigenous cultures, as language is a critical component of indigenous culture, health, and longevity.

Indigenous Languages Are Struggling To Survive

The UN also suggests a frightening estimation: 90%of all languages will disappear within 100 years. And while some languages are spoken by a vast majority of the world’s population, some languages, largely spoken by indigenous peoples, are spoken by only a few. “About 97% of the world’s population speaks 4 percent of its languages, while only 3 percent speaks 96 percent of them,” according to the UN.

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Languages connect the world! 21 February is International Mother Language Day. This is an opportunity to recall our commitment to defending and promoting languages. A language is far more than a means of communication; it is the very condition of our humanity. Our values, our beliefs and our identity are embedded within it. It is through language that we transmit our experiences, our traditions and our knowledge. The diversity of languages reflects the incontestable wealth of our imaginations and ways of life. @UNESCO has been actively engaged for many years in the defence of linguistic diversity and the promotion of multilingual education. We support language policies, particularly in multilingual countries, which promote mother languages and indigenous languages. It recommends the use of these languages from the first years of schooling, because children learn best in their mother language. It also encourages their use in public spaces and especially on the Internet, where multilingualism should become the rule. Everyone, regardless of their first language, should be able to access resources in cyberspace and build online communities of exchange and dialogue. Every two weeks, one of the world’s languages disappears, and with it goes part of our human history and cultural heritage. Promoting multilingualism also helps to stop this programmed extinction. Let us celebrate the power of mother languages to build peace & sustainability! Let us celebrate the linguistic diversity and multilingualism that make up the living wealth of our world! #MotherLanguageDay #MotherLanguage #Languages #UNESCO #Education #Knowledge #Culture #History #Multilingualism #Respect #Diversity #CulturalDiversity Photo credit: Shutterstock/Alena Ozerova 📸📸📸📸

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And the prospect of such a huge percentage of languages dying is truly disturbing when you consider the consequences. The disappearance of indigenous languages will damage communities and eradicate cultural traditions that have been passed down for generations. Just as when physical land is destroyed or cultural traditions and habits become obsolete, the death of a language forever damages an indigenous community in an irreversible way.

When indigenous languages are under threat, so too are the people who speak them, which is why the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages in an effort to raise global awareness about the benefits of sustaining indigenous languages and the significant risks to society if those languages disappear.

Radio Stations Are Working To Raise Awareness and Educate Listeners On Indigenous Languages

So what is being done to help protect these indigenous languages around the globe? Two keys to keeping these languages alive are education and exposure. And radio stations in various communities and countries around the world are working to raise awareness and teach a new generation about these native tongues.

For example, in various communities throughout Canada radio stations are pushing out content that is heavily focused on teaching the mother language of those indigenous cultures. They are using their reach and medium as a key tool to revive and preserve native languages that were once forbidden and that are at risk of extinction.

In British Columbia’s Bella Coola valley, the Nuxalkmc community boasts 893 members. The Nuxalk Radio station “has become a model of sorts, delivering language programming that aims to uplift and empower the Nuxalkmc,” according to a Vice article. The station launched during the Idle No More movement, as a way to save the Nuxalk language, and at the time there were only 11 elder speakers left in the community.

The radio station currently only reaches the reserve, but the goal is to eventually reach the whole Bella Coola valley, and to broadcast on-air content completely in Nuxalk and have every host speak Nuxalk fluently. The station dedicates half of its airtime to language learning — think basic words and definitions, pronunciation, the alphabet, etc. — and the rest of the time it plays music created by Indigenous people from both the local community, Canada and around the world.

Because this language is a difficult one to master, with a lot of complicated throat sounds and hard-to-pronounce words, the station’s hosts not only share what they have learned about the language, but they also use First Voices, a web-based Indigenous language tool administered by the First Peoples Cultural Council. Nuxalk Radio also shares archival recordings from linguists, elders speaking with anthropologists, and other experts, to help teach the language accurately.

The efforts of the radio station seem to be working. There’s a palpable shift in the community, where people seem to be using the language more and feeling more proud of their language and what it represents for their culture. And other indigenous cultures and local radio stations are following in their footsteps after seeing the success in their community.

Government Funding Is Helping These Radio Stations Thrive

It should come as no surprise that there are various obstacles where these indigenous language radio stations are concerned. First of all, these stations are often located in very remote locations, in unconventional (and small) spaces, with poor Internet connections and small staffs. And then there is the issue of funding.

While most governments are aware of the language crisis and the possibility that these indigenous languages could disappear if they aren’t properly nurtured and protected, they still don’t provide much funding to these efforts. If anything, the funding is provided to help record the indigenous languages, but very little (if any) funding goes towards education, awareness and revitalization of those languages.

But there is definitely a shift in how governments are focusing on the protection of these languages and cultures.

In April of 2018 the Canadian government announced its plans to fund a Tŝilhqot’in Community Radio. The funding to the Tŝilhqot’in National Government for its Community Radio Project was provided under the Northern Aboriginal Broadcasting component of the Aboriginal Peoples’ Program. The radio station’s goal is to provide its audience of indigenous peoples in six Tŝilhqot’in communities in British Columbia with a wide range of content. Programming includes language lessons, interviews, music segments, community news and more.

According to Honorable Mélanie Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage, this move is a big deal, and it showcases the government’s dedication to protecting these indigenous languages and cultures. “Our government is taking concrete measures to protect Canada’s Indigenous languages and culture. An investment in the Tŝilhqot’in Community Radio Project goes beyond preserving a traditional language; it’s about fostering a cultural space that allows the community to flourish and grow,” she said.

And Canada isn’t alone in their mission. Currently there are community radio stations around the globe focusing on indigenous language content. From Australia to South Africa to Taiwan and Norway. And yes, there are even radio stations and networks in the U.S. that air programs in indigenous languages and teach about those languages and cultures.

Keeping Indigenous Languages Alive For The Future

And in addition to radio programs working to revitalize indigenous languages, there are other efforts being made to ensure these languages continue to not just exist, but thrive. And focusing on those efforts is arguably more important than talking about how they are struggling. According to Candace Galla, an assistant faculty member at the University of British Columbia’s institute for critical Indigenous studies, we need to focus on the work that the remaining indigenous speakers are putting in to ensure their languages don’t die. “There’s so many positive things that have been happening…we can focus on that instead of focusing on the decline of language.”

For example, her native Hawaiian language isn’t just surviving, but it is adapting to new technologies and modern society. There is even now a word for computer and for Facebook in her indigenous language, words that clearly reflect the youth of the community and the efforts to not only help the ancient language survive, but also be influenced by the next generation.