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LATIN AMERICA
Protecting indigenous languages is urgent
3/1/2013
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Original languages transmit ancestral and cultural knowledge, foundation of Good Living. On International Mother Language Day

On International Mother Language Day, celebrated each Feb. 21, the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas, or ECMIA, issued a statement which calls for action from states to respect and value language diversity and eradicate the racism and discrimination that indigenous peoples suffer.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, there are 522 indigenous peoples between northern Mexico and the extreme south of South America. Around 6 percent of the 590 million inhabitants of the region identify themselves as indigenous; however, not all speak their original language, which endangers “the transmission of ancestral and cultural knowledge that are an important component of our identity as indigenous peoples,” says the ECMIA statement.

“It is a fundamental human right to communicate in the language which one begins life with. Speaking and communicating in their own language without being ashamed, without fear and with full dignity is one of the aspects of Good Living that permits socialization and to retain as well as transmit their culture. Society as a whole benefits because it allows the sharing of values, knowledge, and techniques that are useful in the world concert of cultural and linguistic diversity,” said Tarcila Rivera Zea, a Quechua-speaking Peruvian who is a member of the UN Women’s Civil Society Global Advisory Group, to Latinamerica Press.

For the ECMIA, the young indigenous population “feels shame because of its language and thus, of its origins. As a consequence of discrimination, some parents do not prefer that their children learn the original language because it could, in the future, harm their professional formation.”

Additionally, this linguistic situation makes it that children can no longer communicate with their grandparents. This generational gap is even stronger in the context of migration to urban areas.

This situation has led to the disappearance of numerous original languages and to the point of near extinction of others. While original languages are considered official languages in various countries, in practice they are in inferior situation to the dominant languages such as Spanish or Portuguese.

“In the framework of this hierarchy, the native languages are increasingly cornered in the family and rural spheres. Additionally, in recurring discourse it is common to pejoratively refer to original languages as ‘dialects’, instead of speaking of proper ‘languages’. In this way, the linguistic and cultural diversity of our continent becomes invisible,” maintains the ECMIA.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, hundreds of indigenous languages in all of Latin America could die — in some cases in one generation — as migration, industrialization, invasion of native lands, and cultural integration continue growing. The endangered languages include Quechua — spoken throughout the Andes and the most extensively used in South America — , Mapuche, spoken in Argentina and Chile, Garifuna in Honduras, Maya K’iche’ in Guatemala, and numerous languages in the Amazon Basin.

The ECMIA, which groups women of indigenous organizations of 23 countries of the region, called for a commitment of authorities of the states ‘to implement public policies to defend and promote the use of the original languages without discriminating any [language] and regardless of the number of speakers it has. The right to speak the original language is not enough, so additionally the state [must] promote that its speakers can use their mother language and be cared for in public spaces without becoming objects of ridicule.”

“Maintaining languages is not only the responsibility of its speakers but also of the states,” emphasized the ECMIA. “Languages do not exist without their speakers but they can also not be expected to speak their language if they do not have places to speak them.” — Latinamerica Press.


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