United Nations: Experts call for efforts to save indigenous languages

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An article from Xinhua News

Endangered indigenous languages are being brought back from the brink of extinction but there is still much work to be done, a group of indigenous language experts told reporters here Thursday [United Nations, January 21].


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Edward John (FLICKR)

“There are examples of us not just holding onto our languages, but using them to educate new generations, using them in our homes again,” said Amy Kalili, an expert in the Hawaiian language, who participated in a panel of indigenous language experts here this week.

The panel provided examples of indigenous languages being revitalized around the world, from Maori in New Zealand to Hawaiian in Kalili’s native Hawaii.

It is now possible to study in the Hawaiian language from infancy through to doctoral level, said Kalili, mostly due to community efforts to save the language from extinction.

Kalili said that saving indigenous languages would also benefit the global community through preserving vital indigenous knowledge.

“The wealth of knowledge that we have to offer the global community is codified in our native languages,” she said.

However, Grand Chief Edward John from the Tl’azt’en Nation in British Columbia, Canada said that sadly one Indigenous language dies every week or two weeks.

“If there’s an animal or plant or fish going extinct, people are up in arms over that, but when a language is going extinct, no one says anything,” he said.

And while technology may offer some assistance, it is not the answer in and of itself, said John.

“We now need to get the elders into these gadgets so that they can use this technology to teach the young people,” he said. “Technology in and of itself won’t be the answer, but it’s a tool.”

Tatjana Degai from Kamchatka in the far East of Russia said that despite a multicultural approach and government support for indigenous languages in Russia, some languages are still on the brink of extinction.

“Our language is surviving, in Russia which is a multicultural country (with) over 200 different languages”, she said.

“Some languages are spoken by a million people, some languages are spoken by thousands, and mostly it is indigenous languages of the people of North Siberia and the far-East which are at the brink of extinction,” she said.

There are between 6,000 and 7,000 languages globally, said John. One of the panel’s recommendations is for countries to help map out the indigenous languages within their own borders, he added.

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