A crowd of indigenous children run laughing through the mud streets of Derqui village, two hours outside Buenos Aires. They scuffle and shout to each other as they throw paper leaflets in the air, watching them tumble in the breeze.
But the language of their squabbles is not their parents’ native tongue, the Toba language from the northern province of Chaco – it is Spanish.
Thirty-two Toba families live in the village, built 1995 on land donated as ‘historical reparation’ by the Catholic Church. Here, Toba parents can maintain their culture as a group, and raise their children away from the dangerous slums of Buenos Aires or the precarious outskirts of Chaco towns.
Yet despite this, something has ruptured the transmission of the language from parents to their children. While most can understand it, few of the new generation of Toba youth are fluent in their ancestral tongue.
Inside one of the little community houses, village elder Mauricio Maidana practises the mbique, a traditional Toba instrument, while his son José, also a musician, makes clay incense holders to sell in the city.
Mauricio doesn’t know why so many children do not speak Toba. He insists that his family still speaks the language at home. “But there are other families who are forgetting it. The people from the country still speak our own language, but those on the edges of cities, every year we lose more and more.”
Every two weeks, one of the world’s languages dies out. Linguists estimate that of the approximately 6,000 tongues currently spoken in the world, at least half may disappear before 2050. According to international database Ethnologue, 516 of the world’s languages are already in the final stages of extinction – that is, they are only spoken by a handful of elderly speakers.
Throughout human history, new languages have come into being, thrived, declined, and died out. Yet over the past 500 years, the rate of extinction has escalated rapidly. Europe’s colonial conquests and accompanying massacres of native populations, natural disasters, and the rise of nation-states which prize monolingualism have all contributed to the problem.
Now, the world’s languages are dying out even faster than animals and plants. We are currently facing a massive extinction, a crisis of linguistic diversity.
The destruction is most intense in five key hotspots: eastern Siberia, northern Australia, central South America, the US state of Oklahoma, and the US Pacific Northwest, according to a new study released this year. But Argentina’s indigenous languages too are under threat.
When the first Spaniard sailed up the Río de la Plata, 35 native languages were spoken in the territory that is now Argentina. Now, there are just 15, from six distinct linguistic families.
In scattered communities around Argentina, people are still telling jokes, arguing, and making love in Mapudungun, Tehuelche, Vilela, Toba, Pilagá, Mocobí, Chulupí, Chorote, Wichi, Mbya, Tapiete, Quichua Santagueño, Guaraní-Correntino, Guaraní, and Chiriguano.
But this variety of chatter may not last much longer. The most precarious is Vilela, with only two elderly speakers left. In fact, scientists had considered it extinct since the early 1980s – but researchers from the University of Buenos Aires’ (UBA) linguistics department spent three years searching until they found a brother and sister who still remembered the ancient language of their tribe.
When they die, it is highly likely that Vilela – the only remaining language from the Lule-Vilela family of languages – will die with them. But at least they still have someone to talk to – the Zoque language of Mexico made headlines recently when its last two speakers stopped talking after a disagreement.
What is lost?
Should we care? Why do we need so many languages anyway? Wouldn’t a universal language – English, say – make life more convenient for everyone?
Maybe, but the price for convenience would be an irreplaceable loss for humanity.
Every time the last speaker of a language dies, a wealth of specific knowledge – about the environment, plants and animals, or medicinal remedies – is lost forever. “When an old man dies in Africa, it is like a library burning down,” as Malian ethnologist Amadou Hampâté Bâ once said.
Indigenous languages encode centuries of information about the natural world, says US linguist David Harrison, director of research at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. “In many cases indigenous people know about plant and animal species that have not yet been ‘discovered’ by science,” he says. “We are losing knowledge that may be of immense value to humanity, which may help us understand more about human cognition, adaptation, and prehistory.”
When a language dies, the range of human expression is diminished. Each language packages information in different ways, and is an insight into a people’s unique conception of the world. Many ideas, songs, poems and jokes are simply untranslatable.
And, perhaps most importantly, when a language dies, the people who speak it lose a sense of community identity. The last speakers of a language frequently express immense sadness at the loss of such a fundamental part of their culture.
With around 70,000 speakers, Toba is not as imperilled as other languages such as Vilela and Tehuelche – but if current trends continue, it might not last much longer than the next generation. José Maidana believes his people must fight to retain their language.
“We don’t fight with bows and arrows any more – but this bow on our wall is a symbol: we have to confront the dangers to our culture. Our language is like the trees and the rivers: we have to protect it.”
Can we save them?
What can we do to stem this tide of loss? Is it possible to save dying languages?
Lucia Golluscio, professor of ethno-linguistics at the UBA thinks it is – but there is no one-size-fits-all solution, she cautions.
Between 2002 and 2005, a team from the UBA ran language workshops with the Toba of Derqui, where community members and students participated in Toba grammar classes, recorded stories, advice and songs, and translated part of Argentina’s 1994 Constitution, the first to mention indigenous language rights.
Golluscio also works with the international digital archive, DOBES (Documentation of Endangered Languages), which is documenting four other languages of the Chaco: Mocoví, Wichi, Vilela and Tapiete.
Governments need to promote and support bilingualism, both among aboriginal people and in the wider community, says Golluscio. Indigenous people need to be able to speak Spanish to get jobs, access health care, and interact with the wider community – but this doesn’t have to mean forgetting their mother tongue.
It’s proven that bilingual children learn other languages faster – young Toba are reported to be good at picking up English. In fact, UNESCO argues that we should all be tri-lingual, speaking our mother tongue, a neighbour’s language, and an international language.
But while outsiders – governments, linguists, and NGOs – can help to record languages for posterity, or provide the materials for language classes, ultimately it is the community – and particularly the children – who have to decide if their language is worth saving.
Golluscio points to the example of Tapiete, spoken by small groups in northern Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. Until recently, Tapiete parents were no longer passing the language on to the next generation. An international meeting between Tapiete groups from the three countries inspired the community into action – a sort of ‘Tapiete Revival’ – and they are now using materials provided by an UBA project to teach the language to their children.
In Derqui, José is proud of his son’s ability to speak both Toba and Spanish, play computer games and learn English. Yet he’s also trying to instil in this next generation the importance of heritage.
“When someone cuts down a tree, it’s not the same tree any more. It loses its colour, the sound it makes in the wind – it’s a dead tree. The same thing will happen to us if we don’t fight for our language, for our culture. If not, we too will be like a fallen tree.”