Discovering the value of indigenous languages

Breathing life and dignity into their language
Breathing life and dignity into their language

We do not value multilingual people in our culture. Some of us might lament the death of Bo, Chickasaw, or Klallam languages, but how do we back up our feelings with actions? What do we do to ensure the survival of the next languages to come to the brink?

We have to recognize the dignity of these languages today. Sadly, though, we ignore the languages spoken around us, neglecting the value they bring.


In rural, agricultural California medical centers require the ability to communicate with countless Mexican laborers—many of whom do not speak Spanish. Indigenous Interpreting+ finally noticed the value of speakers of Mexican indigenous languages. They train and hire speakers of languages such as Mixteco, Triqui, Zapoteco, to work as medical interpreters. They train farm workers to work as medical interpreters and to bring unique value to their communities.

As I’ve written previously about language death and about language preservation, we have to take actions to preserve languages in our land where languages come to die.

So when it comes to these indigenous Mexican languages,
How do we continue to keep these languages alive and vibrant?

A recent story told the story of how Indigenous Interpreting+ came to be. (I strongly recommend listening to this fascinating piece of reporting. Go, listen. Then come back.) Patients and doctors at a hospital in the agricultural center of California were suffering: they could not communicate with each other. Employing Spanish interpreters did not suffice, as many of the patients spoke no English or Spanish, but only their indigenous language. When the hospital CEO tried to hire interpreters for these languages, she could not find any. Then she had a discovery. As the reporter on the story said,

There were already indigenous language interpreters at the hospital. Just no one saw them that way. (9:29)

Several patients and current employees of the hospitals spoke multiple languages. Some even functioned as amateur interpreters in their communities.

These polyglots had value because of their language abilities.

The hospital put in place a training program to teach individuals, many of whom had only hoped to work in low-skilled, blue-collar jobs, skills to work as professional interpreters.

Once deployed, the new interpreters of indigenous languages improved the functioning of the hospital. They not only interpreted words, but also explained medical procedures and concepts. Patients ill-at-ease in a system they couldn’t understand now began to feel comfortable. One of the medical residents said,

But I’ve noticed that when we do get an interpreter—even if they speak a little Spanish—it’s not their primary language in a lot of cases—and so when we do get an interpreter, as soon as they enter the room, sometimes I see them just relax. It’s almost as if there’s an ally in the room, somebody that’s familiar, who will understand them on many levels, not just their language. (23:26)

I have my own take on this story, however. Because of my focus on privilege, my heart did not immediately warm to the idea. Of course, I love hearing about dignity granted to languages that society—both Mexican and US—ignore. But the other side is ignored.

What about the doctors?

The ones with the education, the ones with medical experience, the ones with money—why can’t they begin to learn the language? If the languages have value, if speaking with patients is of utmost value, why wouldn’t the physicians learn maybe one or two of these languages?

If a speaker of the language comes in the room, and is immediately seen as an ally, why would the doctor not want to be seen as an ally? Or even a little bit as an ally?

I’m not saying the physicians have to be fluent in the languages. They will still need interpreters. Any physician can write up a list for four languages that include the following vocabulary:

  1. Greetings
  2. “How are you feeling?” “Good/bad.”
  3. Major parts of the body
  4. Organs
  5. “Can I touch you here?”
  6. “Does this hurt?”
  7. “Would you like an interpreter?”

Every physician has to learn organic chemistry in college, which consists of memorizing hundreds of chemical compounds. Ten phrases in three languages will not be hard.

Significantly, the doctors won’t need to learn on their own; the same people who showed value as interpreters could also be trained to work as language teachers. Once a month, hospital personnel could spend time on this extremely important skill, with native speakers as teachers.

As more people internalize these languages, we will breathe life into them.

How can we dignify speakers of languages? How do we give life to lesser-known languages?

By Oaxaca Profundogrupo Centéotl – Mixteca 4, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

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