On December 13, 2022, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in cooperation with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the members of the Global Task Force for Making a Decade of Action for Indigenous Languages, marked the official launch of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages through a hybrid in-person and virtual high-level celebration at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The UN General Assembly held similar high-level events for the launching of the Decade on December 16.
More than 2,300 people from 125 countries joined the celebration, during which UNESCO highlighted a 10-year-long Global Action Plan to draw the world’s attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize, promote, and celebrate them. The action plan sets out a global framework for joint action and outlines the major steps that need to be taken in the next 10 years.
Indigenous Peoples’ cultures and languages are a principal feature of Indigenous Peoples’ identities and rights as collectives and as individuals. Languages are important to Indigenous Peoples’ daily existence and for building human connections. It is through language that Indigenous Peoples preserve their histories, cultures, rituals, customs, and traditions, convey their thoughts, express themselves, and build their futures. The recognition of Indigenous languages is a key aspect of the recognition of Indigenous Peoples.
Globally, there are more than 7,000 languages in use, many of which are Indigenous. But many are increasingly falling out of use due to increasing globalization, urbanization, migration, climate change, and many other factors, all of which are negatively impacting the well being of language communities. In order to address this trend, global efforts have been made. Along with the International Year of Indigenous languages in 2019, the UN has proclaimed 2022-2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, with UNESCO acting as the lead UN Agency.
“I remember the humble beginnings of establishing an Indigenous Languages Caucus with four or five of us, and then convincing the UN to make a bold decision for an International Year of Indigenous languages after we discovered that one Indigenous language was dying every two weeks. So it's a great day to stand today to recall all the work with great gratitude to UNESCO for hosting the International Year of Indigenous Languages and now the International Decade of Indigenous Languages,” said Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild (Cree) at the launch event of the Decade. Chief Littlechild has engaged with the UN for more than four decades advocating for international Indigenous rights. He also noted that the Decade is an important opportunity to work together to find different methods to achieve the vitality and sustainability of linguistic diversity, and to advance the Global Action Plan to ensure our languages are not only reinvigorated, revived, and strengthened, but continue to be living languages.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is an international legal instrument that affirms the minimum standards and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Specifically, Articles 13, 14 and 16 guarantee Indigenous Peoples’ right to revitalize, use, develop, and transmit their languages and writing systems to future generations. Indigenous Peoples also have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions and provide education in their own languages in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning, which includes the right to establish their own media in their own languages. The Declaration, while non-binding, guides States to ensure these rights. The Decade is thus considered an occasion to build a better future in which Indigenous Peoples are not only empowered to pass on their languages to the next generation but also are able to realize their human rights related to language.
“We all know that our languages are intrinsically tied to who we are as Peoples and a vehicle in which to share our worldviews. Yet, as Indigenous Peoples, we find ourselves in places where our languages and dialects are at various levels of vitality. Some are about to die out, some are just a spark, and some have a strong flame,” said Aluki Kotierk (Inuk), President of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated of Canada and Co-chair of the Global Task Force for Making a Decade of Action for Indigenous Languages.
Kotierk continued, “UN member states must work with Indigenous Peoples to achieve long-lasting transformational change that will leave a positive legacy on our languages and our dialects, especially because in many instances it is those member states that have played an active role in diminishing the strength of our languages. Now it is vitally important that they support the strengthening of our languages and that they provide direct funding to Indigenous Peoples to promote and revitalize our languages in our community spaces, including in our education system and in the provision of essential public services.”
This decade of action is also seen as a means to enhance global linguistic diversity and improve the lives of Indigenous language users, including youth, women, elderly people, and others who play a key role in the transmission of Indigenous language, knowledge, identity, culture, and worldviews. The efforts framed in the next 10 years focus on raising awareness of the importance of linguistic diversity and multilingualism for societal development, encouraging States to legally recognize languages and their use in the judicial system, legislation, public administration, education, health care, digital development, employment, cultural heritage, biodiversity, and sustainable food systems.
“Hundreds of initiatives have already been undertaken this year. We must continue to reinforce those efforts. For further contribution, UNESCO is launching a new fund for the Decade in early 2023, which will support projects and works to carry out with, for, and by Indigenous Peoples to revive their languages and to keep them alive,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO. “UNESCO calls for member states and partners to support and contribute to take urgent actions and possibilities for Indigenous children to learn in their mother tongue, and to have their language presence online to improve access to information for all and better integrate Indigenous wisdom in public policy,” she said.
Azoulay also said that the “observation of a single decade might not be enough” to accomplish these aims, and she called upon Indigenous communities not to waste this decade, urging Indigenous Peoples to take this opportunity to garner the commitment of the international community. “You can also count on UNESCO’s support for this decade and after, as you have had before,” she said.
At the launch event, many Indigenous leaders spoke of their expectation that the International Decade of Indigenous Languages will contribute to building a brighter, more sustainable, and multilingual future for Indigenous language users, leaving “no one behind, no one outside” by 2032, according to its slogan. They want to see policymaking, proper implementation, adequate services and resources for capacity building, and strengthening of Indigenous Peoples’ institutions further enable Indigenous Peoples to learn, teach, and transmit their languages through community-based initiatives. Indigenous leaders hope that the decade will culminate in a legally binding Convention on Indigenous languages.
Throughout this decade, Cultural Survival will continue our work to promote and protect Indigenous Languages globally through grant partnerships with community-based initiatives, advocacy, technical support, and other means. Cultural Survival believes that solutions to address the issues of Indigenous language loss must be guided by Indigenous Peoples and community-based practitioners with proven successes in creating new speakers of their own languages. The authentic representation of grassroots Indigenous advocates is critical throughout the Decade.
Cultural Survival staff members Dev Kumar Sunuwar and Avexnim Cojti were participants at the high-level celebration at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France on December 13, 2022.