The importance of preserving indigenous languages

Myanmar is a vastly diverse country, but, as with the rest of the world, indigenous languages are dying out. In this article we take a look at why the preservation of these languages is so important.

Around the world, languages are disappearing. Between the years 1950 and 2010, 230 languages became extinct, according to a UNESCO report*. Today, roughly a third of languages are endangered (around 2,370), and we are losing languages at the rate of approximately one every two weeks†. Globalisation has resulted in a few languages becoming by far the most prevalent, with 78% of the world’s population speaking just 85 languages ‡.

Myanmar is a multi-ethnic country, with many unique groups of people with their own languages, customs, fabrics and ways of life. The Bamar people are the predominant ethnic group, and make up 68% of the population. The remaining 32% is made up of around 100 other ethnic groups. However, many of the languages spoken by these ethnic groups are at risk of disappearing.

According to the UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, four languages from Myanmar became extinct in the period from 1950 – 2010: Taman, Hpun, Malin and Pyu. The most recent to become extinct did so in 2008. Many more are considered under threat or imminent danger of extinction.

One such group under threat in Myanmar is the Moken. The Moken language is considered “definitely endangered”, with approximately 6,000 speakers left as of 2007. The Moken people are a sea-based nomadic group, spending most of their year living in boats on the water, travelling between the approximately 800 islands in the Mergui archipelago. The Mergui Archipelago is located in an area claimed by both the Thai and Burmese governments. They have been regarded suspiciously by governments, due to the nomadic nature of their lifestyle, and attempts have been made to forcibly settle them. There are many challenges facing their culture, according to Survival International which states that “Their semi-nomadic numbers have diminished in recent years due to political and post-tsunami regulations, companies drilling for oil off-shore, governments seizing their lands for tourism development and industrial fishing.”§

But why is the preservation of languages like those of the Moken important? For one, when a language is lost, so is all of the indigenous knowledge that is tied up with it. Native languages contain vital information. As the Independent reported “Embedded in indigenous languages, in particular, is knowledge about ecosystems, conservation methods, plant life, animal behaviour and many other aspects of the natural world.”‖

As a people closely tied to the landscape in which they live, the Moken language is inherently linked to the sea. For example, according to Survival International, “One myth tells of the la-boon, or ‘the wave that eats people’, which is invoked by angry ancestral spirits. Legend has it that just before the la-boon arrives, the sea recedes. When the waves receded prior to the tsunami of December 2004, leaving kabang (their boats) grounded near the coral, the elders of a Moken village in Thailand recognized the ominous signs and led their community and tourists safely to higher ground.” It is believed that as a result of this knowledge, only one Moken man died due to the tsunami.

In Myanmar, ethnic groups are already vulnerable to loss of identity. In school, students are expected to learn in Burmese, a language which not all of the population speaks at home, and in order to study abroad students need to learn English. In a schooling system where critical thinking is stifled, students are not taught the importance of preserving their native language and customs. In a country where infrastructural development is so important, it is vital that the irretrievable loss of identity and language does not become a casualty to it.

Many of Prospect Burma’s students and alumni, coming from diverse cultural backgrounds themselves, are conscious of this. As we shared in “Connections”, a group of Mon students, including our scholar Kyaw Sein Win, have started a Facebook group which shares vital scholarship information in the Mon language. Hsar Doe Doh Moo Htoo, a Karen alumnus, is working to bring the Salween Peace Park project to life, helping to preserve traditional Karen livelihoods and skills in a protected area of forest. As always, education is the key to preserving these disappearing languages and knowledge. Once they have gone, there will be no coming back.

What do you think? Let us know by sending a message to Kirsty.