Closing the 2019 UNESCO year of Indigenous Languages

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Indigenous languages are important for social, economic and political development, peaceful coexistence and particularly for reconciliation in our societies. Yet many of them are in danger of disappearing. It is for this reason that the United Nations declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages to encourage urgent action to promote, revitalise and preserve endangered languages as part of the world’s cultural diversity.

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This year we have presented you some of the world’s Indigenous languages from South America, Japan, Scandinavia and of course Australia. Find them and access the full articles here.

Why Indigenous languages matter

Language is much more than just a way to communicate between people – it represents culture, history, tradition and identity. According to UNESCO, there are more than 6000 languages in the world today. A startling fact is that about 97% of the world speaks just 4% of these languages, including languages such as English, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Indonesian and Arabic. Only 3% of the population speaks the remaining 96% of the languages, many of which are indigenous languages.

Around 600 languages have already disappeared in the last century, and experts estimate that others will continue to disappear at a rate of one language every two weeks. If this trend continues, up to 90% of the world’s languages are likely to disappear before the end of the century.

Endangered languages

Many indigenous people worldwide have stopped passing on their ancestral languages to the next generation because the next generation has adopted the language of the majority of the culture. The next generation is not interested in learning the ancestral language and may feel disconnected to their native community and its traditions.

  • A community may feel pressure to integrate into a larger culture, whether by law or by cultural pressure.
  • Schools teach only the larger cultural language, so kids aren’t learning any other language in the educational system.
  • Some languages are only spoken, with nothing written down to preserve them.
  • Over time historically, genocide has led to linguicide.
  • Many communities are faced with poverty, illiteracy and human rights violations, so preserving a language isn’t a priority.

The impacts of language loss to a community and civilisation in general include:

  • Communities lose their identity and spirituality. It can be common in indigenous languages to transfer history and culture from generation to generation orally in the form of dances, community ceremonies and prayers, and this knowledge oftentimes isn’t found anywhere else.
  • A loss of cultural and traditional knowledge of science, including biology, medicine, flora, fauna, ecosystems and local names of places.
  • A limit to what linguists can learn about human cognition through the study of languages.

Without a concerted effort to teach the next generation of children with laws protecting the right to teach, a language may fall prey to linguicide.

Doing our part

At 2M we have a long track record with Indigenous languages since our debut in 1999. Our CEO Tea Dietterich established in 2000 with the Mirima Dawang Woorlab-Gerring Language Centre in Kununurra, the Indigenous Interpreting Service, the “Kimberley Interpreting Service (KIS)” in W.A. (today known as WA Aboriginal interpreter service) and was instrumental in promoting the rights of Aboriginal people to the services of interpreters.

Since 2018, we are a registered provider of Indigenous language interpreters with the Queensland Government agencies. By providing this crucial service, we assist the Queensland Government in its language policy to promote the usage of Queensland’s Indigenous languages in an effort to preserve them. Indigenous language speakers can access government services such as health, justice and welfare services in their own language without being pressured to speak English and abandon their identity.

Providing professional language services in these languages is also a great way to promote them as a valuable and sought after skill. This encourages language speakers to use their languages and undertake professional training to achieve national recognition through the NAATI certification. We run, in collaboration with NAATI, training workshops to assist QLD Indigenous language speakers to gain their NAATI certification.

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