Our dying languages Editorial
Guyana Chronicle
January 29, 2007

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A RECENT story on the BBC featured a Catholic priest and linguist, Father Reginald Foster, lamenting the fact that Latin was a dying language across Europe.

In Guyana, there is such a loss as well. We have here our own languages of an antiquity of sorts. No great world religion has been built upon them. Yet their passage should warrant at least as much grief as the passage of Latin.

The loss of Amerindian languages represents perhaps the greatest erosion of Guyanese culture today.

There have been sporadic attempts to reverse this. In 2005, for example, the Ministry of Culture launched a project.

"I believe it will call," said then Minister Gail Teixeira, "for a tremendous amount of work and a tremendous amount of dedication, and we hope that the agencies such as the universities and the communities themselves, the Amerindian villages, the Toshaos, their Elders and the young people will be part of this project and many others to come."

One of the main campaigners for the preservation of indigenous languages has been academic, linguist and now Minister within the Ministry of Education, Dr. Desrey Fox.

Beginning as a researcher and following up through her appointment as Head of the Amerindian Affairs Unit at the University of Guyana, ensuring that Amerindian languages survive has been a personal passion and academic mission of Dr. Fox. And for good reason too.

"Indigenous language extinction," says one website on indigenous language preservation, “has accelerated rapidly in the modern period. Scholars now estimate that 90% of the world's languages are spoken by only 10% of its population, that 6,000 languages are endangered, and only about 600 'safe.'"

When it comes to Dr. Fox's fairly recent ministerial appointment, it can go either way for her activism in preserving indigenous languages in Guyana.

She may, as she has done in the past, use the strengths of her professional advancement to consolidate academic attention towards her major personal passion. This would undoubtedly be a boon for the language preservation efforts locally.

There could be no better patron for any cause than one who is in an actual position to influence or even create policy.

The downside of her appointment, however, is that the Education sector – even with two ministers – is a large and increasingly complex one. Whereas the study of Amerindian culture and society occupied the greater majority of her time as an academic, her ministerial portfolio is undoubtedly occupied with many pressing things.

Additionally, there are other factors which take away from the possibility of Amerindian language preservation being given more serious attention than it is currently being given.

An obvious one would be one which affects the entire education system in Guyana: an increasingly severe shortage of trained teachers. Another problem would be the cost and time involved in developing and implementing a school curriculum.

The biggest problem in preserving Amerindian languages in Guyana has to do directly with the Amerindian people themselves: their relative poverty.

Cut off from the urban commercial centres of the coast, and from ownership of most of the resources surrounding their own communities, the preservation of languages not connected to their economic empowerment has meant little for the Amerindian people.

For those seeking integration into the economic framework of their country, the English taught in schools is more useful than the Wapishana spoken at home. Others in Lethem and nearby villages like Yupukari speak the Portuguese of neighbouring Brazil.

The preservation of Amerindian languages therefore has to be deeply integrated into a general multifaceted programme of Amerindian empowerment, taking into account the culture as well as the economic needs of our indigenous people.