Why describing struggling Indigenous languages as 'extinct' can further erode culture

Some languages are declining, but Galla said focus should be placed instead on the work that its remaining speakers are putting in to ensure they don't die.
Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla is an assistant professor in the department of language and literacy education at the University of British Columbia. She points to language nests as helping to revitalize Indigenous languages across the world. (Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla )
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Candace Galla remembers seeing a colleague overcome with emotion after reading that her own community was extinct in a textbook.

"She says, 'How can we be extinct if I'm still here?'" Galla said.

Now an assistant faculty member at the University of British Columbia's institute for critical Indigenous studies, Galla spends the first moments of her class looking at language news — and the words that are used to describe Indigenous languages.

She'll see words like "reclaim," "revitalize" or "strengthen." But her class will also see words like "extinction," or "death."

"We know Indigenous languages have been around for such a long time, but we also know what has been published in, say, textbooks about Indigenous languages or Indigenous peoples isn't always accurate," Galla said.

"Sometimes, the language that's used talks about language extinction where, in fact, the language is still thriving."

Focusing on the decline of language can be important, Galla said, especially when trying to grab the attention of people who are otherwise not aware of Indigenous languages.

Some languages are declining, but Galla said focus should be placed instead on the work that its remaining speakers are putting in to ensure they don't die.

"There's so many positive things that have been happening," she said. "We can focus on that instead of focusing on the decline of language."
Candace Galla says some Indigenous languages are billed as struggling when many times, they're actually thriving. (Katherine Soutar/Supplied)

As others fight to ensure their languages are preserved, they're also adapting to new technologies and other items Galla's native Hawaiian language wouldn't otherwise have.

There's now a word in Hawaiian for computer — kamepiula — which is derived from the English word. But there's also another word — lolo uila — with lolo meaning brain and uila referring to electricity.

It's what happens when a generation of youth grow up and create words on the fly to discuss new technologies that apply to their daily lives. "Youth are very creative," Galla said. "We can really look to our youth to not only inspire us, but see how they are actually communicating in language."

Some are perhaps a bit less creative — Facebook in Hawaiian is Puke Alo, with puke meaning book and alo meaning face — but Galla said creating words on the fly is all part of reclaiming and revitalizing that language.

"I think it's really exciting to see how the language can grow," she said. "We can still be steadfast in our language and in our culture but also be creative and innovative in our language as well."