Let the money do the talking: how economics has led to Indigenous language loss

Written by Ruth Trainor

We…are living at the point in human history where, within perhaps two generations, most languages in the world will die out [1]

There are around 7000 languages spoken in the world today. Roughly every three and a half months, one of those goes extinct [2]. In fact, 4% of people hold 94% of the world’s linguistic diversity [3], and about 50 – 90% of languages are forecast to die out before the end of the 21st Century [4]. Extinction of these languages would mean losing irreplaceable cultural heritage as well as invaluable Indigenous knowledge and worldviews [4]. Locked into indigenous languages is a powerful sense of identity, community and ecological knowledge [5 -7].

The causes of language loss are many, and can be attributed to no single issue [8]. However, the role of unfair distribution cannot be ignored. Unfair distribution is effectively economic inequality [9]; the economic marginalisation of Indigenous communities around the world has been recognised in multiple international covenants and declarations (e.g. Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Agenda 21) [10-13].

Historically, colonialisation has played a significant role in creating unfair distribution for indigenous communities. Indeed, attempts to appropriate Indigenous land and resources go unchecked in many parts of the world still [6]. Yet, land is crucial for indigenous communities [5, 7]. Through the loss or degradation of their land, many indigenous communities are forced into poverty as they can no longer engage in the traditional subsistence or income-generating activities [14]. However, the community has not only lost these key economic opportunities, but they also lose key opportunities for teaching younger generations the language [6, 14]. Across the world, working/hunting on the land together is a crucial way of teaching vocabulary, values and traditional techniques to younger generations [3, 6, 14, 16].

Unfair distribution has also caused language loss by altering the status of the language [8, 14]. For example, school children in Quechua speaking regions of Peru admit there is a certain amount of shame associated with speaking Quechua. To admit you speak the language is seen as admitting you come from an impoverished rural background, which increases the potential of economic/social discrimination [13; 14] Therefore, there is significant social pressure from both within and outside the community to learn and speak Spanish to both hide and improve their economic condition.

Rural-urban migration is also increased by unfair distribution [15]. A lack of economic opportunity in the traditional homelands often leads indigenous people to cities, where there are more jobs available and people feel they have a better chance of improving their situation [16]. These different jobs will require a different set of linguistic skills, which quite fundamentally might not be captured within the traditional language because they do not form part of the indigenous worldview [14]. The status of the language is further degraded as ‘serious’ aspects of life are taken over by another language, leaving only folklore, story-telling and ceremonial events in the native language [3, 14].

What, then can be done about unfair distribution and language loss? Three key actions are clear:

  1. Redistribute the land back to Indigenous communities and strengthen Indigenous land rights. Redistribution of land and recognising land rights strengthens language use and culture [18] and addresses inequality through enabling wider economic opportunities, such as conservation management and natural resource extraction [6; 18]; both of these are shown to be more sustainable when Indigenous groups have strong land rights and decision-making powers [6, 7, 17, 18].
  2. Create and encourage more jobs in Indigenous languages. Providing desirable employment opportunities which do not require alienation from the local context and culture will not only address some of the income inequality faced by Indigenous groups, it will also increase the status of different languages [14]. The pressure to learn a dominant language is not going to go away for Indigenous communities, but it need not compete with their native tongue [3]. Indeed, individuals and societies function better, are happier and more productive when bilingualism is celebrated and encouraged [15].
  3. Implement a Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is a financial grant given to all citizens periodically without any strings or conditions attached. The Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) is one of a few real-life examples of UBI. The PFD takes a proportion of the revenue from oil extraction and puts it into a pot of public money to be redistributed among Alaskan residents. Between 2000 and 2015, poverty among rural Indigenous Alaskan people dropped from 46% in 22% because of the PFD [19], therefore removing some of the economic pressure on languages.

Whilst none of these solutions are a silver bullet, the difference between 50% of languages dying out and 90% dying out is huge. We must act now to save the world’s languages.


Reference list

[1] Foundation for Endangered Languages (UK). In: Crystal, D. 2000. Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. vii.

[2] Rogers, C. and Campbell, L. 2015. Endangered Languages. In: Aronoff, M. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Crystal, D. 2000. Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] UNESCO. 2017. Endangered Languages Programme. [Online] [Accessed 16.11.19] Available from: http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CLT/pdf/FlyerEndangeredLanguages-WebVersion.pdf

[5] Gorenfloa, L. J., Romaine, S. , Mittermeier, R. A. and Walker-Painemillad, K. 2012. Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas. PNAS. 109 [21].

[6] Wilder, B. T., O’Meara, C., Monti, L. and Nabhan, G. P. 2016. The importance of indigenous knowledge in curbing the loss of language and biodiversity. BioScience. 66 (6). Pp. 499-509.

[7] Barrera-Bassols, N. and Toledo, V. M. 2005. Ethnoecology of the Yucatec Maya: simbolism, knowledge and management of natural resources. Journal of Latin American Geography. 4 (1). Pp. 9-41.

[8] Campbell, L. 2017. On how and why languages become endangered: Reply to Mufwene. Language. 93 (4). Pp. 224-233.

[9] Daly, H. E. and Farley, J. 2011. Ecological Economics: principles and applications. Washington DC: Island Press.

[10] Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. 1998. Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. [Online] [Accessed 16.11.19] Available from https://culturalrights.net/descargas/drets_culturals389.pdf

[11] UNCED. 1992. Agenda 21. [Online] [Accessed 16.11.19] Available fromhttps://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/Agenda21.pdf

[12] UN. 2007. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. [Online] [Accessed 16.11.19] Available from: un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html

[13] Parlee, B. L. 2015. Avoiding the resource curse: indigenous communities and Canada’s oil sands. World Development. 74. Pp. 425-436.

[14] Huaman, E. S. 2014. “You’re trying hard, but it’s still going to die”: indigenous youth and language tensions in Peru and the United States. Anthropology & Education Quarterly. 45 (1). Pp. 71-86

[15] Cummins, J. 2001. Bilingual Children’s Mother Tongue: Why Is It Important for Education? Sprogforum. 7 (19). Pp. 15-20.

[16] Nettle, D. and romaine, s. Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages. Oxford: oxford university press.

[17] Ceddia, M. G. 2019. The impact of income, land, and wealth inequality on agricultural expansion in Latin America. PNAS. 116 (7). Pp. 2527-2532

[18] Austina, E. J, Catherine J. Robinson, James A. Fitzsimonsc,, Marcus Sandforde , Emilie J. Ens , Jennifer M. Macdonald , Marc Hockings , David G. Hinchley , Fergus B. McDonald , Colleen Corrigan , Rod Kennetth, Hmalan Hunter-Xeniea , and Stephen T. Garnetta. 2018. Integrated Measures of Indigenous Land and Sea Management Effectiveness: Challenges and Opportunities for Improved Conservation Partnerships in Australia. Conservation and Society. 16 (3). Pp. 372-384

[19] Berman, M. 2018. Resource rents, universal basic income, and poverty among Alaska’s Indigenous peoples. World Development. 106. Pp. 161-172.