United Nations Panel of Experts in Indigenous Languages - January 2016

A three-day meeting was held in January at the United Nations HQ that focused on the revitalization and preservation of endangered languages (Articles 13, 14, and 16 of the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples).  Language and cultural experts from around the world were assembled to identify the best practices for and to recommend various methodologies to rehabilitate and maintain indigenous languages worldwide.  It is widely held that there are between 6,000 and 7,000 languages in use at this time, but it is also estimated that 97% of the world’s population speaks 4% of its languages.  This leaves only 3% of the Earth’s population to speak 96% of languages.  Tragically, most of those 97% are in danger of extinction, and according to the UN General’s 2011 opening statement at the Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues, one indigenous language is lost every two weeks.

In addition to the recommendations made by the language and culture experts that convened, the United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) was given the mandate to discuss issues regarding economic and social development of various cultures, the environment, education, health, and human rights.  UNPFII responded to that call for recommendations with a list that included such suggestions as:

  • National indigenous education policies
  • An increase in the number of indigenous people used for planning, implementation, administration, and teaching of native languages
  • Encouraging indigenous students to attain skills and to raise graduation rates to the same as other students, for maximum success
  • Advising indigenous people regarding curricula development in all school subjects
  • More and continuing conferences to keep the topic of endangered languages moving
  • UN protection of endangered languages

The panel of experts called on United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to adopt a global policy for revitalization and promotion of native languages and cultures.  They also recommended a global fund to support indigenous communities and their language initiatives.  Special emphasis was placed on the need for both National and State governments from all parts of the world to work with their own native communities in order to keep endangered languages safe and active.

Grand Chief Edward John of Canada’s Tl’azt’en Nation, a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, was quoted as saying, “Every Government and every State needs to work with indigenous peoples to keep those languages alive because when they are gone, that whole stream of cultural connections to that part of civilization is gone forever.”      The results of this would affect more than each specific area or community that lost its language; indeed, cultures the world over would suffer greatly as more parts of civilization were lost.   

The panel of experts that was assembled included representatives from the Cherokee Nation, Hawaii, Australia, Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, El Salvador, Finland, Guatemala, Mexico, and New Zealand.  Representatives from First Languages Australia, Paul Paton (Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages) and Daryn McKenny (Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre) were present.

Also present was a graduate student from The University of Arizona: Tatiana Degai, was the expert representative for the Council of the Itelmens of Kamchatka, Russian Federation. Tatiana is an Itelmen woman, a PhD candidate at UA, a member of the UA Endangered Language Circle, and works as the youth coordinator for the Council of the Itelmens.  During the assembly, Tatiana emphasized the importance of communications technology by demonstrating how “WhatsApp” messaging and online karaoke songs in Itelmen provided additional motivation for young people to use their language.  

Papers have been written and submitted by members of the expert panel who attended this three day conference, including a paper from Tatiana Degai, and can be found in the United Nations article