Preserving Indigenous languages in Guyana – commentary

Preserving Indigenous languages in Guyana

Guyana Chronicle – Editorial – 24 February 2019

In the last two years, a renewed interest has arisen in the preservation and use of the Indigenous peoples’ languages.  There are nine nations of Indigenous peoples: Arawaks, Arecunas, Akawaios, Caribs, Macushis, Patamonas, Wapichans, Warraus and Wai Wais, and they each speak a different language.  In a country where several indigenous villages speak their first language, it gives them a special importance.

This year 2019 having been declared the International Year of Indigenous Languages under the auspices of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has brought a greater focus on these Indigenous Peoples’ languages.     

The theme of the year, “Indigenous languages are important to sustainable development, peace-building and reconciliation” is especially relevant to Guyana and other countries of South America.

To underline the great significance of the occasion, the launching of the Year was marked by a symposium at Aishalton, one of the larger Indigenous Peoples districts and was attended by Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, who represented the President, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Guyana, Professor Griffith; Dr. Alim Hossein, Head of the Languages Department and other academics of the University, the Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs and his Junior Minister,  the UNESCO Guyana Representative, Ms. Patrice La Fleur as well as a large gathering of the Indigenous peoples.

Much before the UNESCO declaration of the International Year of Indigenous Languages, the Government of Guyana and the university’s academics have been actively involved in promoting the Indigenous languages:  government notices inviting applications for employment and for contracts were experimentally published in the Indigenous languages.  And there is Radio Aishalton launched in 2018 and other Interior radio stations, which carry broadcasts in the Indigenous languages and the Ministry of Education has been working on introducing Indigenous language teaching in schools in Indigenous Peoples’ districts.

In his address, Prime Minister Nagamootoo noted that radio broadcasts in the hinterland “provide an opportunity for indigenous peoples to connect and preserve their languages.  An informed population is an educated one and do strive after that.  Hold on to your languages”.  Other speakers then made their contributions; each bringing further enrichment to the theme of the year.

Ms. La Fleur, the UNESCO representative, cited Article 13 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that Indigenous Peoples have the right to revitalise, use, and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.  In the same vein as the previous speakers, Ms. La Fleur urged residents and all attending the symposium to ensure that Indigenous youths know their languages.

Article 13 referred to above, outlines the policy of Indigenous languages preservation and development in a most effective way and governments and academics have to  pursue the guidelines set out in the Article if they wish to be successful.  What has been done so far is worthy in preserving the Indigenous Peoples languages, but it is just the beginning.

Simultaneous with these preliminary efforts, a number of activities have to be embarked upon.  These include formulating grammars for the respective languages; production of dictionaries of English and the nine Indigenous languages; phonetically writing their pronunciations and accentuations and capturing those pronunciations on voice tape; and above all, deciding which one of these languages should have the status of a lingua franca.

Making a decision on a lingua franca would involve government, each of the nine language communities and the language specialists.  Philological research has to be undertaken to help in producing the grammars and deciding what are the cognate languages among the nine. It is only when such work has been undertaken that there could be any fruitful and serious attempt to teach these languages in schools or elsewhere.

Another important factor in language preservation is that the language has to keep developing by adoption of modern words and expressions from other languages and be given an economic value.  Except Indigenous languages are given an economic value, they would not be able to survive against English.  Such economic value could be given in various ways, as for example, using such languages in commerce or government officials who work in Indigenous Peoples’ districts be required to be acquainted with the Indigenous languages.

The promotion and preservation of the Indigenous languages and working to achieve an Indigenous lingua franca is an assertion of cultural pluralism.  In Guyana, there have been fairly vocal calls by ACDA and others for the Swahili language to be taught in schools, as well as Hindi-Urdu to be taught in primary and tertiary educational establishments and for these languages to be recognised like French or Spanish as a foreign language for recruitment to the Public Service.  Hindi-Urdu is used in hundreds of temples and mosques, as well as in radio and TV broadcasts and Indian soaps are popular TV fare since many of them have English sub-titles.  Hindi-Urdu songs are heard everywhere and after English is the most heard language in Guyana.

President David Granger has already expressed a policy position on ensuring the preservation of Indigenous peoples languages and the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs has an ongoing project where it teaches the first language in all of the Indigenous Peoples districts. The focus of UNESCO this year can only add to these ongoing efforts in ensuring the sustainable development of our Indigenous peoples.

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