New York, 22 January 2016 (Department of Economic and Social Affairs) — A three-day meeting at United Nations Headquarters in New York brought together experts from around the world to identify best practices and recommend ways to preserve and revitalize indigenous languages.
It is estimated that there are between 6,000 to 7,000 oral languages in the world today, but that one dies every two weeks. “Maintaining and revitalizing indigenous languages is essential to keep our shared cultural heritage,” emphasized Lenni Montiel, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The Department organized the three-day meeting, which ran from 19 to 21 January.
“Every Government and every State needs to work with indigenous peoples to keep those languages alive because when they are gone, that whole stream of cultural connections to that part of civilization is gone forever,” said Grand Chief Edward John of Canada’s Tl’azt’en Nation, a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Noting that information and communications technology could be a powerful tool for revitalizing indigenous languages, Craig Cornelius of Google Inc. described how, together with the Cherokee Nation, the firm had created web search and Gmail in the Cherokee language. Tatiana Degai of the Council of the Itelmens of Kamchatka, Russian Federation, highlighted how WhatsApp messaging and online karaoke songs in Itelmen inspired young people to use that language. And Amy Kalili of Hawaii’s educational medium Makauila explained its use of television broadcasts and social media to support language immersion programmes for children.
During the meeting, indigenous peoples demonstrated various initiatives for keeping their languages alive and made recommendations. They called upon Member States to proclaim an international day and a United Nations decade for indigenous languages in order to raise awareness of the urgent need to keep those languages vibrant and alive. Also recommended was a global fund to support indigenous language initiatives with a focus on community-driven language revitalization projects. The meeting called upon States to implement the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in particular the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations the languages, histories, philosophies, cultures and oral traditions of indigenous peoples.
As a matter of urgency, the meeting also called upon the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to prioritize the preservation and revitalization of indigenous languages and initiate practical programmes to that end. To frame those efforts, UNESCO should adopt a global policy on engagement with indigenous peoples and include the revitalization and promotion of indigenous languages as an agenda item at UNESCO’s General Conference.
The meeting highlighted the important role of indigenous women as the primary transmitters of indigenous languages to future generations, and called upon the Commission on the Status of Women to consider “empowerment of indigenous women” as a priority theme.
Member States also shared initiatives for maintaining and revitalizing indigenous languages. A group comprising Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, El Salvador, Finland, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Norway, New Zealand, Spain and Peru delivered a joint statement recognizing the issue of indigenous languages as an issue of rights. They also acknowledged the need to take effective measures to ensure that indigenous peoples could understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings.
The final report and recommendations of the expert group meeting will be submitted to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at its session in May.