International Mother Language Day: why indigenous knowledge can be lost and also restored through education
February the 21st marks the International Mother Language Day. It appeared in support of the Bengali Language Movement, which on its recognition party in 1952 ended in a tragedy: the Pakistani police and army, occupying Bangladesh by that time, opened fire on the multitude of speakers demonstrating for their language rights in Dhaka. Since the year 2000, when it was proclaimed by UNESCO, this day has been celebrated with the aim of promoting linguistic diversity, which is under increasing threat. The reality is serious and the statistics do not lie: every two weeks, on average, a language disappears. With the extinction of a language memory and an irretrievable heritage are also extinguished.
This reality has a direct impact on the right to education, as figures show that 40% of the world’s population does not have access to education in a language they speak or understand. However, there is a growing awareness and advocacy of the importance of education systems in contributing to avoid the disappearance of languages. Apart from inclusion, a key reason for respecting indigenous language in education is the importance of incorporating traditional knowledge into schools. This is not footling: these days, for example, traditional knowledge is recognized as an important tool for adapting to climate change. For this reason, for example, Mundiya Kepanga, member of the Huli tribe in Papua New Guinea, attended the launch event of our GEM Report 2016 on “Education in the service of peoples and the planet”, describing how, in his school, he “learned to live in harmony with, and take care of, our planet”.
Linguistic diversity also creates challenges, in areas such as teacher recruitment, curriculum development and teaching materials, and policies for bilingual education are often not fully implemented. In Chile, when the indigenous languages were incorporated into official curricula in 2010, teachers in an intercultural and bilingual preschool felt that, in addition to learning the language, they needed more cultural knowledge and first-hand experience with indigenous communities.
And yes, although some may deny it, education is not necessarily the answer to this problem. Education can be both a reason why indigenous knowledge is lost and a potential way to restore it. Days like this, years like 2019, help us to re-evaluate our education policies and programs to make sure that we are not part of the problem, but rather part of the solution.
UNESCO has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019), stating that “we hope that the actions taken during IYIL2019 will generate as much interest and positive change as possible for indigenous languages and for those who speak them. The survival of indigenous languages plays a vital role in the sustainable development of the communities that speak them. As such, the events taking place during IYIL2019 must take into account the three main themes of the year, covering both the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
“It is through language that we communicate with the world, define our identity, express our history and culture, learn, defend our human rights and participate in all aspects of society, to name but a few. Through language, people preserve the history, customs and traditions of their community, memory, unique modes of thought, meaning and expression. Language is fundamental in the areas of human rights protection, good governance, peace-building, reconciliation and sustainable development.