Honoring and empowering endangered languages

Sandra Schlumpf
Nov 25 · 4 min read
Endangered languages (SIL International, 2019)

A common language is one of the most important links between people. It creates a sense of belonging: Our language defines our values, beliefs and identity, and allows us to pass on our experiences, traditions and knowledge. Yet, more than one-third of the 7,000 languages worldwide are at risk, according to the United Nations. Every two weeks a language disappears from the world and with it a part of our cultural and intellectual heritage.

Especially the indigenous languages are in serious danger of extinction. Due to this alarming situation, the United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages to raise awareness about the world`s 2680 indigenous languages and their contribution to global diversity.

The UN calls for action!

As a result, numerous activities have been launched worldwide. One very prominent example is the Google Earth Tour, Celebrating Indigenous Languages, which shares audio recordings from more than 50 indigenous language speakers.

Indigenous speakers share their languages on Google Earth. View on YouTube.

Also, the Seminar for Ibero-Romance Studies at the University of Basel followed the UN’s call for action. Together with the University of Bern, we programmed a lecture series on the topic of indigenous languages in the Ibero-Romance world, in Latin America, Africa and Oceania. In the past three months, experts from around the world joined us in Basel and Bern to speak about the current situation of endangered languages such as Garifuna, Zoque Ayapaneco, Yukuna, Mapudungun or Chabacano. Together, we have been striving to make visible languages and cultures that often remain invisible.

The Bubi language in Equatorial Guinea

One recurring theme throughout the lecture series has been that many indigenous languages struggle to survive due to their coexistence with a strong national language. A complex case is the Bubi language which has been around for 3000 years and is spoken on the small island of Bioko, Equatorial Guinea. In a highly multilingual context, Bubi is competing not only with the official European languages Spanish, French and Portuguese, but also with an English-based Pidgin used as lingua franca, as well as with the language of the dominant ethnic group, Fang.

Nowadays, it’s primarily the world language Spanish that dominates education and official domains of life, and therefore promises social mobility and economic success. Bubi, though, is an oral “dialect” used in private and informal situations. At the same time, it’s a symbol of empowerment and cultural resistance against established hegemonies. However, without any institutional support to promote this ancient language, its transmission to future generations is in question.

Promoting linguistic diversity

As a place where we generate and impart knowledge, universities must strive to preserve cultural and linguistic diversity. With my research on Equatorial Guinea, I would like to make a contribution to this effort. Not only am I researching the uniqueness of the Equatoguinean variety of Spanish, often marginalized in the Hispanophone world, but I would also like to use my commitment to ensure that the subject finds a firm place in the academic context and beyond.

Discover endangered languages!

You are just in time to join us for the two final talks in our lecture series on endangered languages: On November 27, Dr. Matthias Pache from the University of Tübingen will talk about the Chibcha languages in South and Central America, and on December 4, we will enjoy a video transmission of a lecture by Prof. Marleen Haboud from the Universidad Católica del Ecuador. She will speak on the topic of language revitalization. All interested parties are warmly welcome.

More information here.


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The University of Basel has an international reputation of outstanding achievements in research and teaching. Founded in 1460, the University of Basel is the oldest university in Switzerland and has a history of success going back over 550 years. Learn more

Sandra Schlumpf

Written by

Researcher and assistant professor in Spanish Linguistics at the University of Basel

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