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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Saving indigenous languages

Among other things, the survival of a language depends on the prosperity and political influence of the community which speaks it.

Some five to seven thousand languages are spoken in the world today and the majority of these are the mother-tongues of indigenous groups. Linguists fear that in the next hundred years many of these languages will simply vanish. To the indigenous groups who speak them, these languages are more than a means of communication; they confer on their speakers a sense of identity and uniqueness. Language is about who we are. Losing our language means losing our culture, how we see our place in the world and how we connect and communicate with those who came before us and those who follow us.

Along with income inequality and income concentration, our world also suffers from great language inequality and concentration. Some ninety-seven percent of the world’s population speaks a mere four percent of the world’s languages. The current trend is for this four percent of languages to crowd out completely the remaining ninety-six percent. There are numerous reasons for this tendency.

Most countries are pluricultural
It has been the policy in many countries to assimilate native populations into the dominant culture. Assimilationist policies that lead to the destruction of languages are tantamount to a form of ethnocide or linguistic genocide. Few countries are homogeneous, but rather multi-ethnic and pluricultural. The world’s almost two hundred countries are home to some five thousand ethnic groups, while over two thirds of all countries have more than one ethnic or religious group making up at least ten percent of the population.

Despite their long and rich histories, indigenous languages are often relegated to a second class status of dialect, or vernacular, synonymous with poverty, backwardness and a lack of development. Misguided past policies have treated native languages as a part of the problem of underdevelopment, which was supposed to be solved through the introduction of the dominant language, which stood for modernity, development and national unity. Being offered no alternatives, many indigenous peoples have been forced to comply, thus exacerbating the loss of their languages, cultures and identities.

To complicate matters, indigenous peoples are increasingly migrating to urban areas. By way of example, an estimated fifty percent of Chile’s indigenous population and eighteen percent of that of Ecuador is urban. Much of this migration is seasonal or short term, allowing indigenous peoples to maintain economic, social and cultural ties with their communities of origin, and thus resist assimilation. However, both indigenous and non-indigenous migrants tend to stay longer than they originally anticipated, sometimes losing touch with their peoples, leading to increased social fragmentation, a loss of identities and the deterioration of language skills.

Education matters
According to an expert paper on indigenous children’s education and indigenous languages submitted to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2005, educational models for indigenous and minority children that use mainly dominant languages as languages of instruction have extremely negative consequences on the right to education and perpetuate poverty.

Education through the dominant language prevents access to education, since it creates linguistic, pedagogical and psychological barriers. Without education mainly in the mother tongue in public schools, with good teaching of a dominant language as a second language, most indigenous peoples have to accept education through a dominant or majority language, at the cost of the mother tongue which is displaced, and often replaced, by the dominant language.

Research on results of indigenous and minority education shows that the length of education in the mother tongue is more important than any other factor – including socio-economic status – in predicting the educational success of bilingual students. The worst results are with students in programmes where the students’ mother tongues are not supported at all. The report concludes that education in the dominant language curtails the development of capabilities in indigenous children and perpetuates poverty.

Revitalization and rescue
To address the multiple challenges underlying the accelerating disappearance of indigenous languages, the Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development is organizing an expert group meeting from 8 to 10 January in New York, whose results will be reported to the Forum in April.

The meeting will be attended by indigenous experts, members of the Permanent Forum as well as interested member states, UN agencies, indigenous peoples' organizations, and non-governmental organizations. At the meeting, experts will address good practices in the areas of enabling legislation for promoting indigenous languages, the empowerment of indigenous languages through all mediums including radio and television, supporting and increasing the number of centres for the study of indigenous languages, and financing special schemes designed by indigenous peoples for revitalizing and rescuing their languages. They will also make proposals for a world conference devoted to linguistic diversity, indigenous languages, identity and education, as a contribution to the programme of the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People.

The expert group meeting sets a visible milestone for the year 2008, which UNESCO has declared as the International Year of Languages. The meeting responds to the need for concrete public policies for the protection and promotion of indigenous languages and its outcomes, as well as subsequent decisions adopted by the Permanent Forum, will serve as guidance to policy-makers throughout the world concerned with the revitalization and promotion of language diversity and indigenous languages.

Ultimately, clear public policies backed by generous resources can certainly provide the enabling environment for promoting indigenous languages. The survival of these languages, however, will depend on the prosperity and political influence of the communities which speak them. Language policies, therefore, will need to be complemented by policies that empower indigenous groups politically, economically and socially so that they can make their livelihoods in their own communities without having to give up their language and culture or to migrate out of economic need.

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Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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