Photo: Cultural Survival

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 in order to be able to participate in decision-making and in processes of social progress. Linguistic rights are particularly important for ethno-cultural minorities as without them they may not be able to exercise all of their human rights and to preserve their distinct cultural identity.

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, a phenomenon whose dark underbelly is the digital divide that is currently excluding billions of people, including indigenous people and linguistic minorities, from the global communication ecosystem.

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, an attempt in early February by Canada’s federal government to introduce new legislation to preserve Indigenous languages caused quite a stir among Indigenous rights advocates. While Metis and First Nations groups mostly praised the proposed legislation, Inuit groups expressed harsh criticism, calling it mostly a symbolic and colonial gesture. Mr. Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (an Inuit research institute) described the situation in the following way:

“Despite being characterized as a reconciliation and co-development initiative, the Government of Canada engaged Inuit in bad faith throughout this legislative initiative…ITK wanted nothing more than to truly co-develop a bill that we could champion with other Indigenous Peoples and the Government of Canada…In no way was this bill co-developed with Inuit.”

From Nepal to Mexico 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?