Many indigenous languages are in danger of extinction

Linguists estimate that we are living in a time of mass language extinction, with a language going extinct every two weeks. In many cases, these disappearing languages belong to indigenous people.  

(A group of Aimara indigenous women from Bolivia pictured during a thanksgiving ceremony to Pachamama (Mother Earth). © EPA/Marcelo Perez Del Carpio)

"Losing these languages means losing a great part of our human heritage, because languages are much more than spoken or written words and sentences – they are also the means through which cultures, knowledge, and traditions are preserved and transmitted between generations,"  said Mona Rishmawi, Chief of the rule of law, equality and non-discrimination branch of UN Human Rights.

Rishmawi made her statement as part of a panel discussion on the promotion and preservation of indigenous languages during the Human Rights Council. The session looked at the state of indigenous languages and some ways to promote and preserved them.

Despite the immense value, languages around the world continue to disappear at an alarming rate. According to the UNESCO Atlas of Languages in Danger, there are 6,700 languages spoken in the world, 40 percent of which are in danger of disappearing.

With this in mind, the United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, looking to raise awareness not only to benefit the people who speak these languages but also for others to appreciate the important contribution they make to the world's cultural diversity.

"There is a growing awareness that indigenous languages do not simply serve as cultural artefacts," said Irmgarda Kasinskaite from UNESCO, the organisation which tracks the world's endangered languages. "Rather, they equip their users with an invaluable skillset and expertise in different fields, from the environment to education, the economy, social and political life, and family relations."

In fact, speaking one's language is a human right, said Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Australians.

"It is a fundamental right to speak your own language and use it to express your identity, your culture and your history," Wyatt told the Council. "For indigenous peoples, it lets us communicate our philosophies and our rights as they are within us, and have been for our people."

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to language preservation, there are a few examples of good practice, said Lahoucine Amouzay, a researcher from the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture in Morocco. The Amazigh language has experienced a revitalization in terms of numbers of speakers and embeddedness. Amouzay said some of the credit for this goes to the Moroccan Government for enacting policies and plans that help to promote the language. These include conferring official status of the Amazigh language in the country's constitution as well as establishing the National Council of Languages and Moroccan Culture this year.

But it has been people themselves who have contributed the most to the revitalisation and preservation of the language, Amouzay said.

"Ultimately the survival of the indigenous language depends even more on the will of the community," he said. "The prerequisite for the success of the process of formalising the indigenous language is the citizen's commitment to the local and national community to take ownership of the language."

"We all can learn lessons from indigenous languages and their users," said Kasinskaite from UNESCO. "These things range from sustainable agricultural practices to herbal medicine to bio-diversity conservation," she said. "The users, through their languages can provide solutions to many contemporary challenges, like climate change."

Hence why it is so necessary to preserve and strengthen indigenous languages. Indeed while celebrating the achievements of the International Year of Indigenous Languages, there is a call to go further—to have a decade dedicated to promoting, preserving and protecting indigenous languages, said Rishmawi of UN Human Rights.

Kristen Carpenter, Chair-Rapporteur of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and moderator of the panel discussion, supports the idea of a dedicated decade:  "Indigenous people's languages are living languages, even if they and their speakers have suffered and require remedies today," she said. "These languages are critical to the present and future of indigenous people's rights, and with the opportunity to have an international decade on indigenous languages, hopefully we can realise that vision."

17 October 2019

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