Pandemic Silver Lining? Attention and Resources for the Preservation of Dying Languages

Language, along with the storytelling and traditional knowledge for which it is the vehicle, reflects the ways in which indigenous populations look at their worlds. As stated by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, almost half of the world’s estimated 6,700 languages, which are mostly indigenous, risk extinction and “[w]ith every language that disappears, the world loses a wealth of traditional knowledge.” The dire necessity of preserving Native American languages, a critical aspect of their cultural property, was recently highlighted by the decision of the Cherokee Nation to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations for their few remaining native language speakers — elders most vulnerable to the virus. Earnestine Jake Lehi, the last fluent speaker of the Paiute language for the Indian Peaks Band of Utah, was featured last week in the PBS Newshour’s weekly segment honoring Americans who have died of COVID-19.

The recently enacted COVID-19 relief law includes a $20 million grant for “emergency Native language preservation & maintenance.” It attempts to address the fact that the pandemic and stay-at-home orders have frustrated existing attempts at native language education.

The $20 million will be administered by the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) within the Department of Health & Human Services. No details have yet been announced, but in the past the ANA has provided language immersion grants under the Esther Martinez Native American Language Preservation Act of 2006 (Esther Martinez was a linguist and storyteller for the Tewa people of New Mexico), and the Native American Languages Act has funded assessments of the status of native languages and the planning and implementation of native language curriculum and education projects.

The first step in saving indigenous languages worldwide from extinction is recordation and documentation. Globally, efforts such as those of the Living Tongues Institute, empower indigenous language activists working to revitalize their languages and enable scientific documentation. The Institute partners with local linguists to produce locally-specific language resources. It is also creating living dictionaries, “mobile-friendly web tools that support endangered, under-represented and diasporic languages,” including written entries paired with audio and video recordings and images. In addition, it collaborates with other organizations such as Wikitongues, which sponsors projects such as safeguarding dying Jewish languages.

As we have discussed previously, existing laws and intellectual property regimes fail to protect language and related cultural assets from unauthorized appropriation and commercialization, and changes are needed. But, without these essential first steps of documentation and education, those efforts will be meaningless. Hopefully, a positive legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be the attention it has focused on the very real possibility that native languages will die out altogether.