1 March 2019

UN event highlights the role of education in preserving and promoting indigenous languages

26 February 2019 - On the occasion of the International Year of Indigenous Languages and the International Mother Language Day, the Dag Hammarskjöld Library of the United Nations hosted a panel discussion to spotlight the importance of preserving indigenous languages and integrating them into the education system.

The panel discussion, entitled The Future of Indigenous Languages: Keys to Understanding the World, featured Mr. Diego A. Tituaña, Diplomat at the Permanent Mission of Ecuador to the United Nations; Mr. Reuben Fast Horse, Language Teacher of the Lakota Language Consortium; Ms. Chandra Roy-Henriksen, Chief of the Indigenous Peoples and Development Branch, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs; and Mr. Kewulay Kamara, poet, storyteller and educator from Sierra Leone. 

The panelists began by greeting the audience in their native languages. Mr. Diego A. Tituaña (Kichwa Otavalo) talked about how he worked as part of the Steering Commitee to coordinate and facilitate negotiations that led to the resolution establishing 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. 

"Language is like a river, it is continually flowing", stated Mr. Reuben Fast Horse. He went on to explain the differences between the Lakhota language and English, and how he teaches the indigenous language in his classroom. "Language is not just a collection of words, but a whole way of thinking, it’s a culture, and it’s a knowledge”, said Mr. Fast Horse.

Mr. Kewulay Kamara described his language, Fina, as "a way of life". He highlighted the importance of integrating indigenous languages into education, because “there is so much that we lose when we ignore a language”. Learning languages means learning about the people, their way of life, their culture, tradition and history, according to Mr. Kamara. 

As Mr. Tituaña pointed out, "the success of the International Year of Indigenous Languages will only be a reality if we are coordinated. Corporations, the United Nations entities and academia are all key actors". Universities are crucial for teaching and promoting native languages across the world. For students, learning about the indigenous languages also means understanding each other's differences, and learning to be respectful of the indigenous traditions, memories and knowledge. 

Learn more about the International Year of Indigenous Languages here.