If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela

With those two simple sentences one of the 20th century’s greatest icons summed up the power of language. Mandela understood that in speaking a person’s indigenous language you not only communicated from the brain but also from the heart. Mandela believed that is important for the world to rescue, maintain and help nurture the vast array of indigenous languages of this great planet of ours.

The General Assembly of the United Nations with UNESCO declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL). The purpose of the project is to promote awareness of the critical risks indigenous languages face, and to underline and promote their continued importance as “vehicles of culture, knowledge systems and ways of life”. These languages, activists would contend, are not mere repositories of words, grammar and lexicons but are indeed the foundations and cultural roots of many diverse peoples.

These indigenous languages play a critical role in empowering their communities. The use of their native tongue gives them a level playing field. It can, for instance, facilitate equitable democratic participation in their countries’ economic, cultural and political life. It is the means of making them inclusive of the body politic and drawing them into the heart their country’s system. It gives them hope and a stake in the future of their society.


Indigenous languages make up the majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and, like all languages, they are as the UN argues “depositories and vehicles of culture, knowledge, values and identity”. The UN also maintains that the loss of any of these languages would be a deprivation for humanity, and a disempowerment for the communities specifically dependent on these languages. According to the New York Times of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists say, nearly half are in danger of extinction and are likely to disappear in this century. In fact, they are now falling out of use at a rate of about one every two weeks,

According to UNESCO, a language is endangered when parents are no longer teaching it to their children, and it is no longer being used in everyday life. (Source: “Dying languages: scientists fret as one disappears every 14 days“, https://www.thestar.com) A language is considered nearly extinct when it is spoken by only a few elderly native speakers. Languages with a mainly oral tradition have more chance of extinction than those with a written tradition.

What are the numbers behind indigenous languages?

  • 7,000 languages spoken worldwide
  • 370 million indigenous people in the world
  • 90 countries with indigenous communities
  • 5,000 different indigenous cultures
  • 2680 languages in danger of extinction

According to UNESCO the Aims of the IYIL are:

  1. Increasing understanding, reconciliation and international cooperation.
  2. Creation of favourable conditions for knowledge-sharing and dissemination of good practices with regards to indigenous languages.
  3. Integration of indigenous languages into standard setting.
  4. Empowerment through capacity building.
  5. Growth and development through elaboration of new knowledge.

It is through language that we communicate with the world. Language helps us define our identity, articulate our history and culture, and store our traditions. Indigenous language empowers people to defend their human rights and gives them the wherewithal to participate in an equitable way with all aspects of their society. In doing so, they give people a stake in, and a sense of ownership of, their society.

Through language, people preserve their community’s history, customs and traditions, folk memory, distinctive ways of thinking, meaning and expression.  Language is also used to construct their shared future. Language is pivotal in the areas of human rights protection, good governance, peace building, reconciliation, and sustainable development. (Source: https://en.iyil2019.org/role-of-language/)

A person’s right to use his or her chosen language is a prerequisite for freedom of thought, opinion and expression, access to education and information, employment, building inclusive societies, and other values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many of us take it for granted that we can conduct our lives in our native languages without any constraints or prejudice.  But this is not the case for everyone.

Of the almost 7,000 existing languages, the majority have been created and are spoken by indigenous peoples who represent the greater part of the world’s cultural diversity. Yet many of these languages are disappearing at an alarming rate, as the communities speaking them are confronted with cultural prejudice, linguistic assimilation, enforced relocation, educational disadvantage, poverty, illiteracy, migration and other forms of discrimination and human rights violations.

Given the complex systems of knowledge and culture developed and accumulated by these local languages over thousands of year, their disappearance would amount to losing a trove of cultural treasure.  It would deprive us of the rich diversity they add to our world and the ecological, economic and sociocultural contribution they make. More importantly, their loss would have a huge negative impact on the indigenous cultures concerned.

It is for this reason and others that the United Nations chose to dedicate a whole year to indigenous languages, to encourage urgent action to preserve, revitalise and promote them. Let’s hope it is a successful year.

This blog is based on information supplied by the project’s official site:


Where information on related events and what you can do to help can be found.

Aidan Collins is Marketing Manager at KantanMT.