The UN International Year of Indigenous Languages: optimism, skepticism, and unresolved tensions by Mel M. Engman and Kendall A. King

Intergenerational play at an Ojibwe family language camp

In celebration of International Mother Language Day, today’s blog post is written by Mel M. Engman (University of Minnesota; Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia) and Kendall A. King (University of Minnesota).

The United Nations has designated 2019 as the ‘International Year of Indigenous Languages.’ With this proclamation, the UN aims to draw attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote Indigenous languages through national and international work. The resolution also emphasizes the role of Indigenous languages in peace building, and describes Indigenous languages as resources for speakers, but also for the world’s cultural diversity more broadly.

Key stated objectives include:

“(1) Informing about the importance of indigenous languages for social development;

(2) Creating greater awareness about the critical status of indigenous languages around the world;

(3) Stimulating intercultural debate around indigenous languages;

(4) Imparting new knowledge on the importance of indigenous languages;

(5) Shaping attitudes of relevant stakeholders about indigenous languages.”

However, few specifics on the policies, programs or funding to meet these goals are provided on the engaging, colorful website. As of February 2019, the only defined initiative was a call for papers written by practitioners and researchers on Indigenous languages to be published by UNESCO Open Access. As researchers and advocates for language revitalization, we therefore view the UN proclamation with an optimistic, but slightly skeptical eye. Like many in the field, we are encouraged and excited by this high-status body’s interest in promoting a cause that we see as critical to a socially-just world. Simultaneously, we worry about the overly broad objectives of the proclamation and we also question the absence of material and political specificity. We also wonder how work will be accomplished with unclear budget and limited identifiable programming to date. Drawing on years of experience working in support of Indigenous language revitalization efforts, we explore this skepticism in greater depth by comparing the language of the resolution and action plan with the language used by our Indigenous colleagues to describe community desires linked to language revitalization. We look for alignment between local and international efforts and we identify areas where greater connections are needed despite their politically fraught nature.

Trilingual (Spanish-English-Quichua) sign welcoming visitors to the Saraguro community of Lagunas

We look at the UN documents as university-based scholars who have studied language revitalization in communities in Latin America and the U.S., and as (non-Indigenous) allies and advocates for language rights and Indigenous sovereignty. Our experiences with Quichua-language revitalization activists (in Ecuador) and Ojibwe language reclamation experts (in the U.S.) have highlighted how language survival is intertwined with community and family well-being, to land rights, and more broadly, with economic and political justice.

We both came to research work as academically trained linguistics, initially interested in technical or cognitive phenomena of language contact and change (King) and language acquisition (Engman). Long-term engagement with communities forced our attention to the ways that these linguistic phenomena are embedded in language ideologies and social hierarchies which in turn are rooted in historical trauma and injustice. These experiences have expanded our conceptions of the relationships between Indigenous languages and numerous other spheres of life, and concomitantly, color our view of international political bodies and proclamations such as this one.

We note that there is much that seems hopeful and appropriate in the UN materials. For instance, the resolution is inclusive of many Indigenous people and perspectives. The authors also recognize that supporting Indigenous languages also supports families, education, health, and longstanding Indigenous knowledge systems. For instance, the language of the action plan shows a willingness to include Indigenous peoples (instead of making policy on their behalf) in their efforts to support and promote Indigenous languages. This is also evident in the ways that the proclamation reportedly structured its steering committees to include people who can provide a wide variety of local perspectives, and it is evident in much of the plan’s language, which points to numerous social concerns that are deeply entangled with language. For example, the materials address the intersecting and converging interests of sustaining and reclaiming Indigenous languages alongside the maintenance of longstanding cultural practices, the development and dissemination of Indigenous ecological knowledge, and the promotion of basic human rights.

These ideas are sound and decidedly non-controversial. Yet there are numerous concerns that are of critical importance to our Indigenous community collaborators and friends whose language-related work resists the legacies of dominance and erasure. Our experiences with these innovators lead us to note that key words such as ‘sovereignty’, ‘colonialism’, ‘wellness’, ‘water’, and ‘land’ are absent from the UN’s action plan. There are certainly peripheral references to some of these ideas in the resolution and plan (e.g., “a significant cross-cutting pattern of disadvantage and discrimination” refers to colonialism without using the word), but they are not stated directly despite their deep entanglements with the sustaining and restorative work of Indigenous language regeneration.

Language games at an Ojibwe tribal school

To us, as to many readers we imagine, these points of omission and tension look familiar. Furthermore, these omissions parallel the kinds of tensions we often find ourselves navigating as researchers. For many language activists, numerous pressing community threats are seen as fundamentally connected with language work. Such concerns are often social, political, and environmental, and include, for instance, land and water rights, overt racial discrimination, and self-determination. These concerns are more immediate, more linked to displacement and colonialism, and more controversial than what the UN has laid out in the action plan. They are also central to why most Indigenous languages in the world are in need of resolutions and action plans in the first place.

Several decades into this work, the sorts of validating and affirming discourses anchoring the UN’s efforts are familiar to those of us who study language and who work with communities to sustain and restore cultural and linguistic continuity. We agree that language and the attendant social phenomena described in this action plan are basic human rights, and it is easy to see the value of these ideas being recognized by the UN on such a grand scale. This is likely “easy to see” now because of the tireless efforts of Indigenous communities who have labored to educate and cooperate with the individuals and institutions who hold disproportionate amounts of power. White, English-dominant settler academics like ourselves have benefited enormously from the generous and educative thinking of our Indigenous colleagues. We also have a responsibility to elevate the ideas, entities, and practices (e.g., sovereignty, wellness, water) that are fundamental to the current realities of our Indigenous colleagues’ language work.

Wall mural in town of Saraguro woman in traditional dress

Our experiences have shown us how language work at the local level touches on other social and intellectual domains like Indigenous environmental science, political activism, and healing and wellness. The silence around some of the contentious issues associated with these concerns in a sweeping policy document means that those of us with the ability to impose listener and readership (e.g., UN resolution-drafters, policymakers, guest-bloggers) have more work to do in order to hear and promote the voices of our Indigenous friends and colleagues. An example of such efforts can be found in recent efforts by Minnesota clergy who have aligned with Indigenous-led groups to oppose a pending replacement oil pipeline in the state. This pipeline, locally known as Line 3, would run through sensitive headwaters of the Mississippi River and sacred wild rice beds. Through marching, letter-writing, and protesting, this interfaith group shows how non-Indigenous leaders can leverage their power to follow Indigenous groups’ lead for joint, sustained efforts that advocate for a host of concerns related to social justice, cultural and linguistic continuity, and environmental protection.

The UN’s annual International Mother Tongue Day, the occasion of this invited blog post, is dedicated to “promot(ing) linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism” – a generally non-controversial, humanizing goal that we can expand, extend, and unsettle in this 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages. As non-Indigenous beneficiaries of settler colonialism, we aim to follow our Indigenous collaborators’ leads. Importantly, the concerns that our colleagues identify as interlaced with community language work are not apolitical. In order to follow their lead and support their efforts, we are required to resist the status quo. When we support Indigenous land recovery programs, champion Indigenous efforts to protect clean water, or defend Indigenous sovereignty we lean into the politically charged and controversial but critical work of honoring Indigenous languages around the world.

Kendall A. King (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is Professor of Second Language Education at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches and researches in the areas of sociolinguistics and language policy. Recent publications appear in the Modern Language JournalApplied Linguistics and the Journal of Language, Identity and Education. She has written widely on Indigenous language revitalization, bilingual child development, and the language policies that shape immigrant and transnational student experiences in the U.S., Ecuador, and Sweden. Her current research, based in Minneapolis, examines the educational policy and practices which (under)serve adolescent migrants with limited or interrupted formal schooling experiences. She is a former editor of the journal Language Policy and current Vice President (to be President) of the American Association of Applied Linguistics.

Mel M. Engman (PhD, University of Minnesota) teaches courses on applied linguistics at the University of Minnesota and she is the Administrative Director for Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia (GIM), a non-profit organization devoted to reclaiming the Ojibwe language in the Great Lakes region.   Her recent and upcoming publications can be found in the journals Language Documentation and Description, Heritage Language Journal, and Linguistics and Education.  Mel’s current research interests include Indigenous language reclamation, heritage language education, and critical approaches to language and sign in institutional contexts.