19 December 2019

U.N. General Assembly - Indigenous Languages Face Extinction



Indigenous Languages Face Extinction Without Concrete Action to Protect Them, Speakers Warn General Assembly, as International Year Concludes

Two Vanish Each Month, President Says, Urging Focus on Survival of Remaining Ones Rather than Assigning Blame Indigenous languages are in danger of extinction unless concrete measures are taken to protect them, speakers warned today, as the General Assembly convened a high‑level event marking the conclusion of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said that to prevent the extinction of indigenous languages, speaking them must be normalized and promoted. Citing several benefits of doing so, he said the languages express the wisdom, world view and laws of ancestors, and teach how people can live in balance with Earth, which will be vital in facing future ecological challenges.

Tijjani Muhammad‑Bande (Nigeria), President of the General Assembly, cautioned that every two weeks, at least one indigenous language vanishes, leading to two language extinctions each month. At the same time, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls on States to take concrete measures to preserve them and combat discrimination against them through related effective policies. Rather than look for who to blame, he urged, the world should focus on measures to ensure the survival of remaining ones.

Liu Zhemin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, warned that with every time a language disappears, the world loses a wealth of traditional knowledge. Mr. Zhemin, who also serves as the Senior Official of the United Nations System to Coordinate Follow Up to the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, called for their political, economic and social empowerment, given that they face continued marginalization and the expropriation of their lands. Further, the 2020 World Population and Housing Census must ask about regular home use of indigenous languages, not just what languages are spoken.

Yalitza Aparicio, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Goodwill Ambassador for Indigenous Peoples, recalled her own experience growing up in Mexico, where her parents taught her Spanish, but not their indigenous mother tongue. “We are not different or strange beings the way we are often made to feel when we are stared at because of our colourful clothes, or the colour of our dark skin and our physical characteristics, or for the language we speak, which are codes of our history,” she said.

Anne Nuorgam (Finland), Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, called upon Member States to formulate evidence‑based policies, long‑term strategies and regulatory frameworks to ensure the protection and revitalization of these languages. Indeed, expanding the use of their languages allows them to have better access to services, such as health care or legal proceedings. Meanwhile, language barriers make indigenous peoples vulnerable to actions by others that threaten their land, natural resources, cultures, sacred sites or economic livelihoods.

Marie‑Paule Roudil, Director of the UNESCO New York Liaison Office, highlighted the achievements of the International Year, noting that more than 900 events were held, bringing together key players, and distributing training materials on how to preserve, protect and promote indigenous languages. Describing indigenous peoples as guardians of knowledge, she said that knowledge can only be conveyed and transmitted through one vehicle — language. “Protection and promotion of indigenous languages is our common responsibility,” she declared.

During the day, the Assembly held a plenary segment, hearing statements from Member States, observers and representatives of indigenous peoples from the seven sociocultural regions and United Nations entities.

In closing remarks this afternoon, Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, Co‑Chair of the Steering Committee of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, welcomed the decision to proclaim a Decade for Indigenous Languages. “Let us work on a positive and assertive plan of action,” he said, adding: “Starting now, no more indigenous languages will die.” They are living and the value they add to the beauty and rich diversity of humankind can only make the world better. By 2032, there will be at minimum a doubling in the language fluency among indigenous language speakers. Many interventions must work together as one to ensure that indigenous languages are not subject to further gaps or marginalization, and must be accomplished by joining efforts outlined in the objectives set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Craig Ritchie, also Co‑Chair of the Steering Committee, said language matters to people on a personal and individual level. “They also matter to us as nations,” he said, noting that the International Year was a chance to highlight the damage done when language is lost. “We look back on a year of tremendous success and celebration. We are still here, and our voices are being heard.” While this year of recognizing that all people gain when indigenous languages are preserved and revitalized, he said, despite the progress, much work remains to be done.

Assembly President Mr. Muhammad‑Bande said, in his closing remarks, that indigenous peoples and their languages are an integral part of the global identity. “There is no doubt that the protection of linguistic diversity and multilingualism is crucial for peaceful co‑existence, good governance and sustainable development within and across countries,” he said, calling on Governments to redouble their efforts to include the use of indigenous languages in public life, and to provide the resources needed to make this happen.

Also speaking were: Kristen Carpenter, Chairperson of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; Ali Keskitalo, Co‑Chair and Steering Committee Representative of the Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic; and Juan Fernando Velasco Torres, Minister for Culture and Heritage of Ecuador and Co-Chair of the Steering Committee of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages.