Celebrating Indigenous Languages – Defending Endangered Languages

In April 2022, Westminster UNA, the Foundation for Endangered Languages and the Institute of Ismaili Studies hosted a conference to mark the start of the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IDIL, 2022-2031). This is a short version of the opening address given by David Wardrop, Chair of Westminster UNA.

IDIL (2022-2031) aims to draw global attention on the critical situation of many indigenous languages and to mobilize all of us for their preservation, revitalization and promotion.

This is the 46th UN International Decade but it joins seven other UN decades currently seeking attention. Why a Decade rather than a Day or Year? Firstly, changes take much longer than first imagined. Secondly, each of the UN’s 193 member states have their own priorities. Days and Years can be dodged but Decades cannot. Time will come when a reluctant state sees peers taking the Decade seriously, participating in international initiatives. Peer pressure works.

So, what is behind IDIL? The clue is in the title of this article. All states show pride in their indigenous languages but too many of these are also endangered, their native speakers are disadvantaged by their governments. However, ‘endangered’ is a word that UN circles are loathe to use because it implies that a member state is endangering that language. While not every indigenous language is endangered, every endangered language is indigenous. The link is there. 

Many of these languages are spoken by minorities. But what rights are provided to minorities? We rejoice in the ubiquity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the most translated document in history but on the day it was finally agreed in Paris, 10 December 1948, the clock passed midnight and scheduled discussion on the fate of Minorities was deferred. That ‘fate’ remained unfinished business until December 1992 when the UN agreed to the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities. Yes, only a Declaration, not a Convention, but then so was the UDHR.

For indigenous languages, how do we measure progress? Why not by using the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG, 2015-2030)? Take the case of Nigeria, which somewhat failed in achieving its Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) mainly through communication barriers as many Nigerians cannot speak English, relying on indigenous languages. To achieve its SDGs, its strategy must be people-centred, recognising it is a multilingual nation. Unfortunately, there appears no language plan in its government’s transition strategy. In India, NGOs are translating the SDGs into its many languages.

But are the SDGs referencing indigenous languages? Alas, there are only four references to indigenous peoples, describing them as populations of special interest because they are ‘vulnerable’. Is that good enough? No, but we can flag this shortfall early on in the decade but still need allies.

Cristiana Palmer, Secretariat chief of the Convention on Biological Diversity, highlighted that although they constitute a relatively small part of the world’s population, indigenous people represent “the largest portion of linguistic and cultural diversity on Earth and their traditional lands and waters overwhelmingly contain the greatest remaining reserves of biodiversity”.

Linking biological and cultural diversity, she pointed to the grave threat to the resilience of human communities and ecosystems. She also pointed to the centrality of traditional and indigenous languages in strengthening the links between biological and cultural diversity for attaining the global 2050 vision of humanity living in harmony with nature”.

Recognition of the links between biological and cultural diversity brings to IDIL a potentially powerful partner, one with little Human Rights ‘ideological baggage’ but a great deal of human goodwill.

In conclusion, we have a decade in which to be creative, to be bold, adventurous, to work with allies, to preserve what might otherwise be lost for ever. Let’s ensure we utilise the Decade to the full.