Native languages of Colombia: Flourishing or floundering?

Colombia’s National Commemoration of Native Languages day took place last Sunday. The University of Antioquia, located in Colombia’s second city Medellín, have held events all week to continue the commemoration, and celebration, of the country’s native languages and cultures, daily El Tiempo reports.

Yet, there may well be cause to commiserate. According to UNESCO, if action is not taken, half of the 6,000 languages currently spoken in the world will disappear by the end of this century. Most at risk are lesser-spoken languages usually within indigenous or native communities.

Latin America is dominated by European languages. Spanish, English, Portuguese, French and Dutch make up the official languages. The languages of the European colonisers are now the norm. But what  of the languages spoken before the conquest?

In Colombia today, officially 68 native languages are spoken by around 850,000 people. Of these, 65 are indigenous and are spoken in 22 of the total 32 departments in the country. Two are creole, spoken by those with African roots. Palenquero is spoken in San Basilia, near the Caribbean city of Cartagena, while the other is used in the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina. The final native language is Romani, that spoken by the Romani, or ‘gypsy’ community.

If the purpose of language is to communicate, why preserve those only spoken by very few?

“To preserve languages, is to preserve those that speak them,” says the Minister of Culture, Mariana Garces Cordoba, Radio Nacional de Colombia reports. Language is more than a form of communication. It conveys culture, identity and way of life. Each language is vital to those who speak it, however few they may be.

The end of this week sees the end of the events held at the University of Antioquia. But the commemorations will continue elsewhere…

The Oscars take place this Sunday. The Colombian contender for Best Foreign Language Film, ‘Embrace of the Serpent’, (El abrazo de la serpiente), is spoken partly in the indigenous languages of Tikuna and Huitoto. Audiences world-wide will be made aware of the existence of these native languages. In Bolivia, another indigenous language is being similarly celebrated in the Arts. The famous work of Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, ‘Platero and I’ (Platero y yo), has been translated into Quechua, according to El Tiempo.

National and international commemoration events and coverage in high-profile cinema and literature; there could be a brighter future for native languages in countries all over the world.

The disappearance of native languages is not inevitable but, sadly, it is irreversible.

Latin Correspondent | by Anna Grace

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