Utqiagvik, Alaska. Via by Deborah Schildt on Unsplash.
Utqiagvik, Alaska. Via by Deborah Schildt on Unsplash.

The survival of Indigenous languages in the face of climate change

How does climate change impact Indigenous and minority languages?

Many Indigenous and traditional languages across the world are deeply rooted in and connected to the environment. Passed down from one generation to the next, often orally, this knowledge enables different ways of connecting to the land and nature. But as climate change intensifies, and ecosystems change as a result, Indigenous languages suffer losses. 

There are many reasons why Indigenous languages are threatened, from globalization to unfavorable government policies and education systems. Persecuted and colonized groups are often pressured to abandon their languages, and climate change acts as a multiplier of this loss.

Vanuatu

In tropical, low-lying places such as Vanuatu — an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean — climate impacts are not a distant future to dread but a damning present to grapple with. Despite its negligible carbon footprint, Vanuatu suffers from the impacts of tropical cyclones, droughts, and floods, as well as seismic activity such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis that leave the land barren and cause displacement of local, vulnerable communities. Cyclone Pam, for example, in 2015, was considered to be the worst cyclone to have ever struck Vanuatu. It affected 64 percent of the economy, destroyed 96 percent of food crops and displaced about 65,000 people.

Vanuatu has the most Indigenous languages per capita in the world — about 100 languages spoken in a population of just about 270,000 — and is believed to be the most linguistically diverse country in the world. 

And because biological diversity and linguistic diversity go hand-in-hand, climate change-induced disruptions to the natural environment can also distort the language context. When the environment changes, the language loses meaning.

“When I worked with a community in Vanuatu, they had words for everything imaginable in nature — so many terms for different kinds of trees based on different factors such as how close they are to the shore, the kind of bark,” said Anastasia Riehl, Director at Strathy Language Unit at Queen’s University.

“Now, these communities are already experiencing climate change; what happens when some of those species are lost? What happens when the community is forced to relocate because of climate disasters and they leave that environmental area behind? It leads to the loss of those words and languages,” said Riehl.

Countries like Vanuatu and Fiji have developed comprehensive planned relocation policies to address the threat of disaster-related displacement and climate refugeeism. Of course, this does not address the problem of language loss.

Alaska

In Northern Alaska, native communities describe how climate change affects their language and life. 

“The Iñupiaq language has a complex and robust lexicon related to ice conditions in part because it is linked to our survival. If you’re out hunting and you aren’t able to describe to your hunting partner whether the ice is stable enough, it could cost your lives,” Annauk Denise Olin, an Iñupiaq and MIT Graduate student working on language revitalization, told MIT News.

Coastal erosion, flooding, and thawing permafrost are recurring problems for numerous Alaskan towns and villages. Many areas experience a combination of these threats, and communities are forced to migrate. Residents of Newtok, a Yup’ik village in Alaska, had to migrate to Mertarvik due to thawing permafrost and severe coastal erosion. The riverside village is losing 70 inches of coastline a year. They became the first community in America that had to migrate due to climate change. 

“Arctic communities, especially the Iñupiat, those communities are fishing communities. They are all near the sea and there is terrible erosion going on in the coastlines. In some of them, it’s so bad, it means they either have to move the entire city or village to another location or migrate to another city individually,” Lindsay J Whaley, professor of Linguistics and classics at Dartmouth, told Currently. 

Olin said that as the climate and environment changes, elders in her community lack the vocabulary to describe changes in the ice, affecting their way of life. Additionally, there are not many Indigenous language speakers in Alaska below the age of 60 who speak their native languages fluently. Losing their language means losing insight into the minds of their ancestors who were able to thrive in one of the harshest climates in the world for centuries.

In a study examining the nexus between land and language for Indigenous people, members of the Iñupiaq and Saint Lawrence Island Yupik communities in Northern Alaska spoke of how speaking their native language helps make practicing traditions and community values a more authentic experience.

Iñupiaq is a language of being out on the ice, said an elder from Utiqiaġvik, Alaska. The knowledge of sea ice is embedded into the language. While doing traditional activities such as whaling and berry-picking with the community, it is pertinent to know specific terminology concerning the ice, weather, wildlife, and currents. 

“How are we gonna explain the different ices to the next generation? How are we going to talk about hunting and what to look out for if it so happens that the ice comes back? What are they gonna do,” said an Iñupiaq language instructor from Utiqiaġvik.

Language Revitalization 

In an attempt to preserve the Iñupiaq language of her native Alaskan community of Shishmaref, Annauk Olin has been working with the MIT Indigenous language Initiative to develop a curriculum to teach the native language. 

She is interested in creating a community-led school where they not only learn the language, but also partake in traditional practices such as harvesting and processing food, and sewing traditional clothes. 

Such an initiative, Olin believes, should relay the importance of community and how each person must relate to and connect with one another. Olin’s own community has been trying to relocate due to the impacts of climate change on their lives.

In Western Alaska’s Nome Elementary School, an Iñupiaq immersion program has been introduced at the kindergarten level to help strengthen children’s identities and boost their well-being.

All of these community language revitalization endeavors will help these Indigenous languages survive, even as a changing climate threatens their longevity.

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