Languages without borders

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In Guyana, many of our Indigenous Nations reside along the borders of our country and have a strong familial and cultural link to the Indigenous groups that live in Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname. In the current times of hardship faced by many Venezuelan Indigenous groups, cross border languages are being used to provide assistance that is in dire need.

International Mother Language Day (celebrated on the 21st February each year) is designated to promote linguistic and cultural diversity, and multilingualism. This year’s theme of ‘languages without borders’ highlights how cross border languages can promote peaceful dialogue and help to preserve cultural heritage.

In Guyana we have 10 Indigenous languages. These are, in alphabetical order, Akawaio, Arecuna, Atorada (near extinct), Carib, Carolese, Falmouth Sign Language, Lokono (Endangered), Makushi, Patamuna, Taruma (near extinct), Wapichan, Wai Wai and Warrau. Our official language, English, was introduced during colonisation. The Guyana Languages Unit of the University of Guyana is working to promote policy related to languages preservation and the promotion of language documentation and revitalisation. This year they have promoted crossing borders within the school system. With the Ministry of Education, they have encouraged the sharing of languages within the classroom in the telling of stories, greetings, singing songs and reciting poetry. They also encouraged parents to participate in activities that promote native languages.

Promoting our native languages is important; three are in danger of being lost. UNESCO and the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues said that across the globe, 60% of the languages communicated are Indigenous, but they are fast disappearing as only 6% of the population speak their native tongue. It is estimated that a language is lost every two weeks taking with it an entire culture and intellectual heritage.

In Guyana, action is being taken to ensure that languages are documented with the development of dictionaries. The Ministry of Education are piloting programs to explore the integration of Indigenous languages into the formal school systems in Indigenous territories. Indigenous groups are taking the initiative to begin teaching reading and writing of their language.

For its part, the Darwin Traditional Knowledge project encourages the use of native languages in its participatory video investigations. All members of the community research team can speak their native tongue and usually engage community members in their language. The project is also working on a Traditional Knowledge National Action Plan, a component of which will focus on Indigenous languages. This document will serve as a model for other countries to take action to promote and save guard Indigenous knowledge and languages, and will play its part in ensuring mother languages remain without borders.

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Deirdre Jafferally has 17 years’ experience working in community based wildlife management and conservation. Deirdre first started working at the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, Guyana in the area of environmental monitoring. Recently, Deirdre has focused her interest in community resource management and Indigenous knowledge in the pursuit of a PhD exploring the implications of socio-ecological changes on Indigenous knowledge and practices, and its impact on forest conservation. She holds a BSc in Biology and MES in Sustainable Development and Ecological Monitoring.