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Role of indigenous languages

MUBANGA Lumpa.

Analysis: MUBANGA LUMPA
IN 2016, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages in order to raise global attention on the critical risks confronting indigenous languages and their significance for sustainable development, reconciliation, good governance and peace building.
This was after the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages based on a recommendation by the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
According to the UN, the commemoration in 2019 will contribute to the access to, and promotion of, indigenous languages and to a concrete improvement in the lives of indigenous peoples by strengthening the capacities of indigenous language speakers and relevant indigenous peoples’ organisations.
This year’s commemoration will be held under the theme ‘Indigenous languages matter for sustainable development, peace building and reconciliation’.
The event will also gather high-level governmental representatives, indigenous peoples, civil society, academia, media, information and memory organisations, United Nations agencies, public language harmonisation and documentation institutions and the private sector.
The major objective of the event is to provide a global forum with a constructive debate in which high-level speakers will address new paradigms for safeguarding, promoting and providing access to knowledge and information for the indigenous languages’ users.
Language is an important aspect of our lives. It is through language that we communicate with each other and the rest of the world.
Language also defines our identity, expresses our history, culture and enables us to participate in all aspects of society.
Through language, people preserve their community’s history, customs and traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking, meaning and expression.
UNESCO further acknowledges the importance of language in the areas of human rights protection, good governance, peace building, reconciliation, and sustainable development by stating that “a person’s right to use his or her chosen language is a pre-requisite 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”.
As such, a number of strides have been made to underscore the importance of language in people’s lives. According to UNESCO, progress is being made in mother tongue-based multilingual education with growing understanding of its importance, particularly in early schooling, and more commitment to its development in public life.
For instance, through the International Mother Language Day, celebrated every year on February 21, UNESCO reiterates its commitment to linguistic diversity and encourages its member states to celebrate the day in as many languages as possible as a reminder that linguistic diversity and multilingualism are essential for sustainable development.
Although many people today take it for granted that they can conduct their lives in their indigenous languages without any constraints or prejudice, this is, however, not the case for everyone across the globe. According to UNESCO, there are about 6,000-7,000 languages spoken in the world today. Of these, about 97 percent of the world’s population speaks only 4 percent of these languages, while only 3 percent of the world speaks 96 percent of all remaining languages.
However, without appropriate measures to address this issue, the loss of indigenous languages and their associated history, traditions and memory would considerably reduce the rich tapestry of linguistic diversity worldwide (UNESCO, 2018).
UNESCO further notes that many of these languages are disappearing at an alarming rate, as the communities speaking them are confronted with assimilation, enforced relocation, educational disadvantage, poverty, illiteracy, migration and other forms of discrimination and human rights violations.
Thus, many of the indigenous languages are in danger of disappearing. This is true to many parts of the world, including Zambia, which boasts of a rich linguistic diversity. Although our country has a variety of indigenous languages spoken by the local communities, there is a possibility that some of these indigenous languages may disappear over time if nothing is done to preserve, revitalise and promote them.
There is, therefore, need to explore ways to avoid the possible loss of our indigenous languages. For instance, this can be done through appropriate laws and legislation by the Government to encourage the use of indigenous languages by communities in the various socio-economic activities of the local communities.
This is because indigenous languages play an important role in the social, economic and political development, peaceful co-existence and reconciliation among communities. Indigenous languages are part of the indigenous knowledge systems that have been developed and accumulated over thousands of years by the local communities and, therefore, their disappearance would amount to losing a huge amount of indigenous knowledge, which is vital for the survival of many local communities as well as the ecological, economic and socio-cultural contribution they make to their local environment and communities.
It is for this reason that the United Nations declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages in order to encourage urgent action to preserve, revitalise and promote them.
The author is a social commentator and blogger.

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