The United Nations has declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages in order to raise awareness about the importance of linguistic diversity in relation to sustainable development, culture, knowledge and collective memory.
People’s ability to communicate in their own language is one of the cornerstones of communication rights. Everyone should be able to use their own language to share knowledge and information, access media content, resolve conflicts, and share their concerns so they can participate in decision-making and in processes of social progress.
Linguistic rights are particularly important for ethno-cultural minorities — without them they may not be able to exercise all of their human rights and to preserve their distinct cultural identities.
The need to think about linguistic issues is exacerbated by the growing centrality of the Internet and digital communication platforms in most countries around the world. It is a phenomenon whose dark underbelly is the digital divide that excludes billions of people — including Indigenous people and linguistic minorities — from the global communication ecosystem.
About four billion people, mostly from developing countries, still don’t have access to the Internet, according to the World Economic Forum. Furthermore, only 10 languages dominate the Internet, with English accounting for 54.4 per cent of the top 10 million websites, according to the World Atlas. The UNESCO Atlas of Language in Danger classifies 2,465 languages as endangered.
Even if linguistic rights issues do not make headlines every day, the struggles of communities working to bring greater attention to linguistic issues are very real, and should be part of the communication rights agenda.
For example, when Canada’s federal government introduced Bill C-91, a legislation to preserve Indigenous languages, it caused quite a stir among Indigenous rights advocates. While First Nations and Metis groups mostly praised the legislation, Inuit groups called it a symbolic and colonial gesture.
Natad Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK, an Inuit research institute) said the bill was “in no way co-developed with Inuit” and does not address their concerns, especially around accessing public services like health care, education and justice in Indigenous languages. The Senate’s standing committee on Aboriginal Peoples later adopted an amended version of the Indigenous Languages Act, to reflect changes sought by the Inuit. The ITK welcomed the changes, but said it was “regrettable that not all of the well-reasoned and thoughtful considerations put forward by Inuit were included” in the amended version.
Indigenous academics from the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation-led research centre based in Ryerson University, said Bill C-91 “is not really a language rights law at all,” since it avoids implementing “the kinds of language rights, obligations and enforcement mechanisms found in the Official Languages Act or the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
They also said that “any law that is serious about revitalizing Canada’s Indigenous languages must enact the right of Indigenous parents to educate their children in their ancestral languages in publicly-funded immersion schools.”
The importance of Aboriginal language rights as fundamental parts of Canadian society was cited in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report in 2015. The commission’s set of recommendations included policies that recognize the linguistic diversity of Aboriginal communities and funding to preserve and revitalize Aboriginal languages.
Indigenous community media have an important role to play not only in preserving Indigenous languages, but also in pursuing reconciliation. They could shed light on key issues, engage previously disengaged audiences, and give visibility to people whose voices are rarely heard.
Even if they were not explicitly mentioned in the TRC’s calls to action, it must be noted that community-based Indigenous media have a lot to offer to promote dialogue and achieve respect, trust, and ultimately, reconciliation.
From Canada to Nepal to South Africa, Indigenous rights activists are mobilizing to defend their ancestral languages. Advocates of communication rights and freedom of expression should take note of their struggles, and join the celebrations this International Year of Indigenous Languages. Click here to get involved.
How can we work together to preserve Indigenous and minority languages?
Lorenzo Vargas is a communication for development specialist and researcher on citizens’ media. Lorenzo coordinates WACC’s communication for social change program, which supports community media and citizen journalism initiatives in Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Pacific and Africa.
Image: Peter Hershey/Unsplash