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

GA/12230-HR/5456
17 December 2019
Seventy-fourth Session, High-Level Event on Indigenous Languages (AM & PM)

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.

The General Assembly will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 18 December, to consider reports of its Third (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) and Sixth (Legal) Committees, and is expected to take action on related draft resolutions and decisions.

Opening Remarks

TIJJANI MUHAMMAD‑BANDE (Nigeria), President of the General Assembly, said that every fortnight, at least one indigenous language vanishes, leading to two extinct languages each month, even though 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.  About 6 per cent of the world’s population speaks these surviving indigenous languages, which matter for such reasons as the role they play in allowing people to understand their place in the world, in passing knowledge down through generations and in building on achievements of the past.  Human progress hinges on cooperation between languages, and their preservation is essential for humanity’s survival.  The death of indigenous languages means the people who spoke them lose a piece of their identity, he said.  The United Nations has been instrumental in raising awareness about indigenous languages and enacting measures to preserve them. Rather than look for who to blame, the world should focus its attention on measures to ensure the survival of remaining ones.  Urging indigenous communities to be inspired by the fact that their languages are an essential part of their heritage, he said their mother tongue provides insights and can help to move humanity forward.

LIU ZHEMIN, Under‑Secretary‑General for Economic and Social Affairs and Senior Official of the United Nations System to Coordinate Follow Up to the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, said these vital languages matter for issues that are at the heart of the Organization’s mandate.  Noting that a draft resolution proclaiming the International Decade of Indigenous Languages to commence in 2022 is expected to be adopted by the General Assembly on 18 December, he recalled that the marginalization and expropriation of indigenous peoples’ traditional lands continue, he said, calling for their political, economic and social empowerment.  With every language that disappears, the world loses a wealth of traditional knowledge, he warned, highlighting the need for the 2020 World Population and Housing Census to ask about regular home use of indigenous languages, not just what languages are spoken.  Systematic discrimination and exclusion continue to threaten indigenous peoples’ ways of life, cultures and identities, which is contrary to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

MARIE-PAULE ROUDIL, Director at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Liaison Office, New York, highlighting progress achieved in the past year, said this momentum must be seized as Member States work to safeguard indigenous languages.  More than 900 events were held to commemorate the International Year, bringing together key players and distributing training materials on how to preserve, protect and promote indigenous languages.  Indigenous peoples are guardians of knowledge, and that knowledge can only be conveyed and transmitted through one vehicle:  language.  “Protection and promotion of indigenous languages is our common responsibility,” she said, adding that multilingualism is key to improving understanding among different peoples.

YALITZA APARICIO, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Indigenous Peoples, sharing a personal story from her childhood, said that despite Oaxaca, Mexico being home to many different languages, she grew up hearing her parents speak only one.  Recalling her surprise when she first heard her father speak a new language, she said she quickly learned that both her mother and father spoke different languages, but had only taught her and her brother Spanish.  Her parents believed that speaking only Spanish would “open doors” and protect her from discrimination.  Recalling her career in the film industry, she said that she learned quickly how important representation is.  “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.  As UNESCO Ambassador, she said she would focus her work on promoting the inclusion of indigenous languages in education “because ignorance always leads to discrimination”.  Parents must never feel obliged to forget who they are or have to protect their children from discrimination, she said, adding that:  “No boy or girl should go through life ashamed of their roots.”

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, said that his country is multinational and intercultural, with many peoples and nationalities.  Their collective rights are recognized and guaranteed in the Constitution, and Ecuador is committed to preserving indigenous languages.  The proclamation of the International Decade on Indigenous Languages recognizes that there is work to be done to protect indigenous knowledge, he said, calling on Member States to come together with a “universal will” and adopt a culture of peace that can safeguard the cultural history of humanity.

ALI KESKITALO, Co‑Chair and Steering Committee Representative of the Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic, highlighted its work during 2019.  Noting that indigenous peoples’ delegates have been equally participating with Member States in the Steering Committee and in high‑level events, she also provided an overview of discussions.  Among the items addressed, she said, technical development has much to offer indigenous languages if developed with free prior and informed consent, adding that UNESCO and the Steering Committee offered a meeting place for indigenous peoples, technology providers and scholars at the International Conference on Language Technologies for All, held in Paris.  Indigenous languages must be applied to all technological opportunities and ensure that they stay relevant in a changing world.  Environmental change challenges these languages because of their strong connection with knowledge and livelihoods.  Recalling that her land is changing, with trees growing where there should be none, she said the memory of that land is embedded in the languages spoken.

PERRY BELLEGARDE, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, pointing out that indigenous languages are the medium through which traditions are passed on, said that young people want this vital connection to their ancestors.  That desire is a fundamental human right, he said, adding that studies demonstrate that children fluent in their indigenous language are more successful in school and life.  However, colonialism has had a catastrophic effect on indigenous languages, with generations of people taken from their land and communities in deliberate attempts to destroy their language and culture.  As a result, there is a real danger that the remaining indigenous languages in Canada will not survive another century.  To prevent that, speaking those languages must be normalized and promoted, as they 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.  There is reason for encouragement, he said, reporting that the Assembly of First Nations and Canada have co‑developed ground‑breaking legislation to protect indigenous languages.  Schools should create bilingual and immersion programmes, he said, emphasizing that the International Year of Indigenous Languages will not be enough to protect the diverse cultural heritages that have faced so much oppression.

ANNE NUORGAM (Finland), Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said that languages represent complex systems of knowledge that have been developed over thousands of years and are inextricably linked to land, waters, territories and resources.  Indigenous languages are key in preserving ecosystems and ensuring the continuation and transmission of indigenous cultures, customs and history.  “They are part of the heritage and identity of indigenous peoples,” she added.  The Permanent Forum recommended the adoption of a rights‑based approach towards indigenous languages that considers the full spectrum of human rights and fundamental freedoms as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Article 13 of the Declaration enshrines the right of indigenous peoples to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their languages and emphasizes their right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions to provide education in their own languages.

Expanding the use of their languages allows indigenous peoples to have better access to services, such as health care, she said.  Language barriers also undermine due process in legal proceedings.  Without accessible courts and institutions, indigenous peoples become vulnerable to actions by others that threaten their land, natural resources, cultures, sacred sites or economic livelihoods.  She called on Member States to formulate evidence‑based policies, long‑term strategies and regulatory frameworks to ensure the protection and revitalization of these languages.  Some estimates predict that up to 95 per cent of the world’s languages may become extinct or seriously endangered by the end of the century.  To reverse these dire predictions, the Permanent Forum strongly supported the proclamation of the International Decade on Indigenous Languages. 

KRISTEN CARPENTER, Chairperson of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said that despite the recognition of their recognized rights, they continue to die because they are not understood.  One tragic example is seven‑year old Jakelin Caal Maquin, who died in United States custody because the medical form her father completed in his native language about her ill health was not properly translated.  The human rights community has crystalized around countering efforts to destroy indigenous languages, she said, urging States to devote at least the same amount of resources to restore languages as they had on eradicating them.  The efforts to destroy indigenous languages are well documented.  Indigenous languages are not archaic, as they are often portrayed.  They are used to illuminate universal and unique concepts, she said, adding that indigenous peoples understand that protection efforts must be carried through consensual agreements.

For information media. Not an official record.