Learning a New Language Can Help Us Escape Climate Catastrophe

Many Indigenous languages have been forcefully wiped out by white people. Turns out, they’re some of our main hopes for beating the climate crisis.
April 15, 2021, 12:21pm
An Inuit mother interacts with her daughter on the remote tundra of Baffin Island in late spring.
The suppression and destruction of Indigenous languages, as well as global English dominance, is a core part of environmental destruction. Photo by RyersonClark/Getty Images
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Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.

Jakelin Troy belongs to the Ngarigu people of the Snowy Mountains in southeastern Australia. She says her language, Ngarigu, succumbed to English in the 19th century. It is nearly extinct.

Snow is a core part of Ngarigu culture and language. Much of that intricate knowledge is lost. “I don’t know how to talk about snow in the way my ancestors would have,” Troy, a professor of Indigenous languages, said. “I can only try to do it in English.”

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The suppression and destruction of Indigenous languages, as well as global English dominance, is a core part of environmental destruction. 

If the people who have managed the land for tens of thousands of years no longer have full access to that bio-cultural knowledge, and the land is being exploited by people with no understanding of where they are—and for that matter, who they are—disaster is inevitable. 

“We have songlines, traditions about keeping it all going and ensuring that country reproduces the things it should,” Troy said. “These are things wider Australians don't know about. They're beginning to want to know about it because they're all terrified of climate change,” she continued, referencing the horrific 2019-2020 Australian wildfires.

It’s easy to think the connection between language and ecological disaster is simply an “overlooked element of the climate crisis” as opposed to other causes—like fossil fuels, animal extinction, or Jeff Bezos. 

But is it overlooked, or intentionally suppressed? 

Ashley Fairbanks is an Anishinaabe woman from northern Minnesota, Ojibwe from the White Earth Reservation, and has spent years studying the Ojibwe language. Her Obijwe name is Asiniiwiikwe, meaning “made from stone.” 

Fairbanks said her grandparents were both first-language Ojibwe speakers, but when forced to go to a government-run boarding school, they were no longer allowed to speak Ojibwe or engage in cultural and religious practice. This  happened all over the world, including to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, Indigenous peoples in Canada, and the Sami in Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

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“When your language dies, your worldview dies with it. The actual structure of the language holds so much of that worldview,” Fairbanks said.

Troy said there are still some communities in Australia where only Indigenous languages are spoken. “English is useless to them.” Troy said. “In country, they preserve themselves without having to bend to colonial ideas that say English is superior.”

But, Troy said, the Australian government won’t stop trying to infiltrate these communities with English. Disguised as “education,” the imposition of English is an attempt to reduce the already dismal number of 13 Indigenous languages spoken by children in Australia (from 300-700 languages before the U.K. colonized Australia, in 1788), which will further strain the environment, causing wildfires and cyclones and drought. 

Due to bio-cultural knowledge embedded in these languages, Indigenous peoples have always been aware of this connection.

Darach Ó Séaghdha, co-host of the Irish podcast Motherfoclóir and author of Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from a Not So Dead Language, told VICE World News that “a huge amount of scientific information in Irish was passed down orally, but was lost to the trauma of the famine and immigration.” Today, only 1.7 percent of the Irish population is fluent.

Ó Séaghdha, who said many words in Irish are like “one-word poems,” finds himself fascinated by this bio-cultural knowledge. “The word for swallow is fáinleog,” he said. “It means little wanderer, because the bird migrates during winter. In our languages, we understood bird migration, thousands and thousands of years ago. We had words for phosphorus magnetism before they had scientific books.”

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Siwan Clark, a Welsh speaker and MSc candidate in Social Research Methods at University College London, said Wales is environmentally suffering because of centuries of British colonialism, particularly during the Industrial Revolution, which had a devastating global environmental impact.

Clark said her mother, who grew up on a farm in North Wales, understands critical Welsh words—a language Clark said is deeply agricultural—that “have no context or meaning” for her.

“Industrialized farming is inextricable from empire,” Clark said. “If those small farms fail, then the language won’t truly survive.” 

For High Country News, Rebecca Nagle reported that for every dollar the U.S. government spent on eradicating Native languages in past centuries, it has spent less than 7 cents on revitalizing them in the 21st century. 

Although robust and complete Indigenous language revitalization could help save humans from the climate crisis, colonial governments have been reluctant to put significant effort into this strategy, because of its revolutionary potential. 

Fairbanks, who is also the creative director for the One Hundred Percent Campaign, a climate coalition for equitable energy in Minnesota, has seen this power. 

On the front lines of Stop Line 3—a pipeline expansion that if built, would threaten Indigenous lands and lives from parts of Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin—Fairbanks says Ojibwe and other Indigenous languages “have been so core to this work.” 

Ó Séaghdha said, “The effort to learn an Indigenous language means taking part in the tradition of activism that comes with it.” 

In his bilingual book Irish and Ecology/ An Ghaeilge agus an Éiceolaíocht that, professor Michael Cronin writes that Indigenous languages are the key to sustainability. “The future lies with languages that can maximise diversity, alter human interaction with the non-human and reveal ways of being that are connected to the specificities of place but are open to the world.”

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He goes on to criticize “monolingual fantasists who would condemn us to an intolerable past in the name of an unsustainable future.” 

In both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (which is still part of the United Kingdom), Irish language has been a critical—and often controversial— part of resisting British colonization and British cultural hegemony. Troy’s husband is Irish, and their daughter was raised with both the history and pride of Aboriginal and Irish colonial resistance, especially through language. 

Black people across North America, the Caribbean, and South America were torn from our Indigenous languages when we were enslaved. But Black Vernacular English, Gullah-Geechee, and Jamaican Patois are examples of creolized languages rooted in revolutionary movements. Without Haitian Creole, for example, the first successful slave rebellion would never have happened. 

Indigenous language revitalization requires a seismic shift in the world. It is much easier to maintain the status quo when discussing the climate crisis through the lens and the language of colonization. 

Truly making Indigenous languages the dominant languages on Indigenous lands would give immense power back to those who have been stripped of it, and both colonization and the climate crisis would be much less sustainable.

Through apps like Duolingo—which offers Hawai’ian and Navajo—and the field of eco-linguistics, white non-Indigenous people can try to participate in reclaiming the land-language nexus.  

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“They’re beginning to want to know about (Indigenous languages and land practices) because they’re all terrified of climate change,” Troy said. 

But this kind of anthropological gaze can often reduce the radical nature of Indigenous languages to the trope of the “noble savage,” or a quaint hobby. “Non-Native people glamorize the way that we interact with nature. That’s frequently very dehumanizing,” Fairbanks said. 

So, is white non-Indigenous people learning Indigenous languages actually helpful to resistance movements against colonialism and the climate crisis?  

Fairbanks said that according to her elders, no one should be discouraged from learning Ojibwe, but intentions matter. “You have to come with a spirit of service, and you can’t take opportunities from or speak over Indigenous people.”

Troy has also worked with Indigenous peoples in Pakistan, like the Saraiki of the Punjab and Torwali of Swat. In her experience, she said, “I constantly see (disrespect), as though somehow non-Indigenous people can acquire our knowledge and then fix everything up.” 

This view towards Indigenous knowledge and language is what many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are resisting, by transitioning from the term “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” to “Indigenous Bio-Cultural Knowledge.” 

The former term makes it easier to ignore and fetishize Indigenous peoples, rather than acknowledging both their scientific and cultural authority, as well as their current rights to the land. Indigenous Bio-Cultural Knowledge reflects “specialized knowledge of place, local history, species, and contemporary land management,” rather than relegating Indigenous peoples and their power to relics of the past. 

As a linguist, Troy points out that believing English to be the vessel of scientific knowledge makes no sense because it is a young language. “It lacks the elegance that many other older, Indigenous languages have for talking about how we’re going to survive and work with each other. Because those languages were tens of thousands of years old,” she said. 

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As the climate crisis threatens our collective survival, English has evolved to include words—like green economy, greenwashing, paleo-energetic—to describe this existential crisis, but much of it is focused around fear, growth, or extraction.

Even the Green New Deal constantly touts its ability to expand everything: jobs, infrastructure, technology. 

“When English spreads across the world it often brings with it discourses of consumerism, and sweeps away local, more ecologically attended languages in its path,” said Arran Stibbe, an ecological linguistics professor at the University of Gloucestershire.

Other terms—climate anxiety, climate emergency, mass extinction—bring with them a heavy feeling of panic. 

In Scientific American, Sarah Jaquette Ray argues that climate anxiety is often expressed as an overwhelmingly white phenomenon, spurred by fear of an existential threat like the ones they and their ancestors have inflicted upon others. 

“Fear of losing power says that people with privilege should start asking ‘Who Am I?’ and ‘How am I connected to all of this?’” Ray writes. 

Those are dangerous questions, when it comes to language and the climate crisis. The answers might reveal that the power white people have enjoyed must be relinquished, that land must be returned. The world must fundamentally change. 

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Without having a language rooted in the lands they occupy, and without control over those lands… how will they define themselves? 

Indigenous peoples know how to define themselves without colonizers, without English. But we have all been made to need English—and the colonial constructs it created—to live in this world, to get an education, to feed our families. 

“One of the tragedies for Indigenous people all over the world is that they are being displaced—drawn into unsustainable lifestyles and separated from their languages. Troy said. 

“We live within the first-world problems of scared white people,” she added. “We’re all living within their fears, not our own.” 

Follow Nylah Burton on Twitter.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.