When the United Nations declared 2019 to be the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019), it was seen by many as a significant step forward in protecting the culture and way of life of indigenous peoples across the world.

In order to mark the halfway point of #IYIL2019, we’ll explore in this blog what it means to be indigenous, how indigenous peoples are represented on a global scale and what the International Year of Indigenous Languages and its accompanying campaigns actually seek to achieve.

Indeed, if the goal of the translation is to be a bridge between cultures, break down language barriers and facilitate communication between different peoples, it seems that the translation industry has a duty to champion these marginalised and vulnerable languages.

What does it mean to be indigenous?

A Maori man performs during a traditional ceremony in New Zealand.
A Maori ceremony in New Zealand

The term “Indigenous", which can mean native, original, “first” or aboriginal, is a complex term which is often misunderstood by many.

Whilst there is no clear definition of the term, the UN bases its understanding of indigenous people on a set of characteristics, those being communities who have “historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies,” a “distinct language, culture and beliefs” and “form… non-dominant groups of society.”

The determining thing, however, is that a person or community self-identifies as indigenous, rather than allowing themselves to be defined as such by others.

Some of the most well-known groups of indigenous peoples include the Māori of New Zealand or the Lakota in the USA. But it is thought that there are more than 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries worldwide, most of whom retain languages, traditions and cultural beliefs that are totally “distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.”

How are indigenous peoples given a platform?

In 2000, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (also UNPFII or PFII) was set up to work on issues specifically affecting indigenous peoples, which is just one of the ways in which the rights of indigenous peoples are given a global platform.

The Forum is described as an advisory body, with a mandate to “deal with indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.”

In December 2016, the Forum identified the urgent need to safeguard indigenous languages.

With current research suggesting that of 6,000–7,000 languages currently spoken and used, between 50% and 90% of them will have become extinct by the year 2100, it seemed the logical step forward would be to raise awareness about the issue on a global scale. 2019 was consequently declared by the UN as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, with the hope that it would "help promote and protect indigenous languages and improve the lives of those who speak them."

Why should we care?

An indigenous North American of the Lakota tribe at a Pow Wow festival in South Dakota.
A native American of the Lakota tribe

Indigenous languages don’t merely represent another way of communicating, but they are “complex systems of knowledge,” offering insight into lesser-known and under-documented cultures.

Indigenous peoples are often seen as guardians of the natural world. Experts estimate that some 300 million indigenous people live in “mostly undisturbed natural areas,” and another 600 million in "local communities striding the natural and built worlds." This means that indigenous languages contain an awareness and vocabulary for nature that speakers of more widely-used languages would find impossible to comprehend.

To lose these languages would mean also losing vital connections and clues to the world around us that have been developed over thousands of years.

According to UNESCO, "Every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value systems, philosophy and particular cultural features.

"The extinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others.”

What can be done?

Creating policy is perhaps the most crucial thing we can do to protect indigenous languages.

As part of #IYIL2019, The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is taking a “multi-stakeholder approach,” meaning they are working with governments, indigenous peoples’ organisations and communities, academia and the private sector to implement legislation and policy framework “that reduce[s] inequalities and at least mitigate[s] discrimination against speakers of indigenous languages.”

This legislation might, for example, aim to ensure that children and young people can access education and training in their mother tongue­. This is something that is often not possible when the country’s official or dominant language often takes precedence in the training of teachers and creation of educational resources.

It could also encourage the exchange of scientific knowledge and sharing between cultures, drawing on the unique perspective of indigenous communities to contribute to global science and knowledge.

But policy and legislation can also cover something as simple as documenting and recording the language to preserve it for future generations.

What can we do?

How, then, can we support the work of UNPFII this year and join in with celebrating indigenous languages and their speakers?

The UNPFII challenges everyone this year to either attend an event, plan one of your own or join in activities in your neighbourhood, city or region.

Events are important as they allow for the sharing of knowledge and resources and are a physical display of solidarity.

The UNPFII also suggests that, where possible, people can support IYIL2019 by:

  • Developing a project
  • Sharing new content
  • Suggesting tools and solutions
  • Developing and sharing a story (share news items)
  • Running webinars
  • Offering training (share information and content)
  • Publishing your research
  • Providing financial support

Wolfestone aims to lead the way in the translation industry by raising awareness of the issues surrounding indigenous languages, continuing to contribute to the conversation and renewing our financial sponsorship of Translators Without Borders (TWB).

TWB is a not-for-profit organisation that offers language support to humanitarian agencies and organisations across the world, often working with marginalised, indigenous peoples and languages.

So why not show your support and join in the discussion with the hashtag #IYIL2019?