Document the dying languages of Peru

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'when your language is not understood, you are not appreciated' - J Gerra

Globalization has brought with it fantastic improvements to our daily lives, often at the cost of cultural diversity. Few phenomena are as central to the shared experience of a cultural community as language, and of the 7,000 currently spoken around the world, at least half are fading from view, disappearing and taking with them their histories, woven together by generations of experience and knowledge.

As UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura states, “The death of a language leads to the disappearance of many forms of intangible cultural heritage, especially the invaluable heritage of traditions and oral expressions of the community that spoke it – from poems and legends to proverbs and jokes. The loss of languages is also detrimental to humanity’s grasp of biodiversity, as they transmit much knowledge about the nature and the universe."

Some languages now have so few speakers that they cannot be maintained, but linguists can, if the community so wishes, record as much of the language as possible so that it does not disappear without a trace.

I am from the UK, and have always considered myself lucky to have English as my first language. I can travel the world and expect that most people will understand me, or at least try to. But the dominance of certain languages leads to a cultural hegemony, which means that our culture and language increasingly begin to influence and limit our ways of understanding the world. It is not just a language, it is a paradigm. Obviously some cultures adapt English or whatever language has been culturally imposed on them, but it always becomes an interpretation of their culture and language.

As an acupuncturist, I also have a personal interest in the Shipibo's use of medicinal plants and how that information is conveyed through the language. So I plan to spend 6 months with a Shipibo healer, allowing them, using participatory video, to make a documentary about their language and how it relates to their connection with the jungle and the medicinal plants.

There are academics out there now actively documenting and recording many of the dying languages, but many of these studies are quite dry and don't bring to life the cultures and really show what they are about, who the people are and how they live their lives and how they feel about their culture and traditions. I plan to help to bring these studies to life, so people can see that without preserving these dying cultures, we are running headfirst into a one world culture which is going to be limited by the language we speak.

Participatory video is a form of documentary making in which the community members are assisted in making their own film, which they write, direct and edit. Thus cutting out the middle man and making it a direct transmission from the people who the story is about. I think that this is the best way for people to tell the story of their language and their lives.

The Shipibo community consists of about 24,000 people living in over 110 village communities concentrated in the Pucallpa region and is situated to the north and south of the city of Pucallpa.

As far as endangered languages go, Shipibo is vulnerable with 26000 speakers, it is at a point where it could easily disappear within 3 generations, as young people become more interested in modern culture and less interested in the traditions of their culture. I feel that it is a good example of a language that is on the brink, and this could be a very crucial time to provide the Shipibo people with something that can document their culture and to encourage the younger people in the community to show more interest in preserving their language and culture.

Allianza Arkana are working hard to protect the culture of the Shipibo in the Amazon. These days, the culture is threaten from many angles, and the easiest and quickest way to erode a culture is by eroding it's language. Their aim is to support innovative, intercultural educational projects in Indigenous and Mestizo communities throughout the Peruvian Amazon; help preserve Indigenous traditions that contain conservation ethics and practices that have sustained them in the rainforest for millennia; integrate indigenous knowledge with the best contemporary science and practices to strengthen cultural identity, cultivate leadership and reinforce a sustainable worldview founded on tradition.

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