Celebrating the International Year of Indigenous Languages

World map decorated with an abstract geometric pattern

The United Nations has proclaimed the year 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL). According to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2016, "40% of the estimated 6,700 languages spoken around the world were in danger of disappearing." We've discussed on the blog before the issue of language extinction, and what that means for culture. What can having international recognition about the plight of Indigenous languages do to keep the languages, and the cultures they keep alive, surviving and potentially even thriving?

The IYIL website explains that "Indigenous peoples are often isolated both politically and socially in the countries they live in, by the geographical location of their communities, their separate histories, cultures, languages and traditions. And yet, they are not only leaders in protecting the environment, but their languages represent complex systems of knowledge and communication and should be recognized as a strategic national resource for development, peace building and reconciliation. They also foster and promote unique local cultures, customs and values which have endured for thousands of years. Indigenous languages add to the rich tapestry of global cultural diversity. Without them, the world would be a poorer place."

There are five main areas of intervention:

  • Increasing understanding, reconciliation and international cooperation
  • Creating favorable conditions for knowledge-sharing and dissemination of good practices with regards to Indigenous languages
  • Integrating Indigenous languages into standard-setting
  • Empowerment through capacity-building
  • Growth and development through elaboration of new knowledge

What are some countries that have been working on preserving and documenting their Indigenous languages? Australia is home to over 120 Indigenous languages, down from the over 250 (and 500 dialects) that existed when Europeans first colonized. One way that Australians have worked to preserve the languages, both alive and no longer spoken, is through the Australian Indigenous Languages Collection. The collection contains "4360 books, pamphlets and collection items such as children’s’ readers, bible translations, dictionaries, grammars, vocabularies, works of imagination and learning kits in 200 languages," and is recognized the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register. However, Indigenous languages and cultures are historically considered largely oral, and many fear for the future of storytelling in indigenous communities. The Guardian reports that "over the past two decades, there has been a wave of first-person storytelling in the form of life writing, with small independent publishers such as the Aboriginal-owned Magabala Books and the UQP imprint Black Australian Writers fostering a 'new' Indigenous literature," based on the storytelling traditions and narratives of the Australian Aboriginal cultures. Groups are also working on capturing audio recordings of these stories, to preserve both the tales and the languages they are told in. They now hope for people who will want to listen to these stories, in order to continue to pass them down through future generations.

North America is also home to a large number of Indigenous languages. In Canada, over 60 Aboriginal languages were reported on the 2011 census, including "almost 213,500 people reported an Aboriginal mother tongue and nearly 213,400 people reported speaking an Aboriginal language most often or regularly at home." By the 2016 census, that number had risen to 228,765, as the push for teaching Indigenous languages continued to grow and more parents are teaching the languages to their children. Last year, for the first time, the Canadian Parliament elected to allow First Nation languages to be spoken in Parliament, and will provide interpreters for translation into French and English. The Department of Canadian Heritage has also joined with the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and the Métis Nation to co-develop a First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Languages Act, in order to "reflect the distinct geographical, political, legislative and cultural context impacting language preservation, promotion and revitalization."

The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list also has been collecting recordings and documents that preserve other Indigenous languages and cultures around the world. Some of these include:

There are so many more to explore on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list, with videos and recordings to allow researchers, students, and curious guests learn more about each tradition and language nominated.

If you want to get involved with the International Year of Indigenous Languages, what can you do?

  • Whether you are an organization or an individual, you can register a Partnership that will provide you with access to resources that will help you organize or sponsor events, educate your communities and colleagues, and promote the goals of the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
  • Attend an IYIL event, like the Official Global Launch Event if IYIL2019 in Paris on January 28; the ʻAha Aloha ʻŌlelo festival in Hawaii on January 25-26; the 2019 LSA Linguistic Institute at UC Davis from June 21 to July 19; the IYIL 2019 Perspectives Conference in Indiana from October 31 to November 2; and many more across the country and around the world.
  • Reach out to your local universities to encourage them to host events celebrating Indigenous languages, especially local and regional ones.
  • Look for books, movies, music, and even apps and podcasts produced in or highlighting Indigenous languages. For example, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has put together a list of their top ten Indigenous films, and also highlighted a podcast aimed at recording Cree Elders' stories and increasing Cree usage among younger generations.

What do you plan to do to learn more about Indigenous languages and promote the International Year of Indigenous Languages in your community? Let us know over on our Facebook or Twitter!