Communication rights include preservation of endangered mother tongues

... WACC statement on International Mother Language Day - 21 February 2009

A mother tongue is the language a mother teaches her child. It is the umbilical cord linking that child to the community in which she or he grows up. As such, it is a verbal skin of identity, shaping the sounds used to express feelings, meanings, and relationships.

While mother tongue education and multilingualism are increasingly promoted around the world, languages are disappearing. UNESCO’s Atlas on Endangered Languages points out that “the past three hundred years have seen a dramatic increase in the death and disappearance of languages leading to the situation today in which 3,000 or more languages that are still spoken are endangered, seriously endangered, or dying.”

And according to the Living Tongues Institute, “Every two weeks the last fluent speaker of a language passes on and with him/her goes literally hundreds of generations of traditional knowledge encoded in these ancestral tongues. Nearly half of the world’s languages are likely to vanish in the next 100 years.” The globalization of the world’s economies and the rapid growth of digital communications have speeded up that process.

Mother tongues of cultural minorities have always faced challenges. Doreen Spence, a Cree elder, laments the repression of her mother tongue at church-run residential schools in Canada as an assault on her culture, heritage and way of life: “The essence of Mother Tongue is critical: It is the essence of who we are. It is our identity. It is the way we express our Spirit. It is synonymous with our Culture and Traditions.

Spence notes that, “Our legends and stories are handed down from the beginning of time through generations by our Mother Tongue. Our relationships with all living beings and with one another and the environment, our songs, chants, and prayers cannot be translated into any other language. They come from the Heart and Soul… My Grandmother said if you deny your language it is like putting your Spirit in a jar and putting a lid on the jar. Your Spirit will suffocate – it will die. This is a serious crime. All the money in the world cannot heal your Spirit.

Pitjantjatjara is an Indigenous language spoken in Central Australia. Singer Makinti Minutjukur says that Pitjantjatjara, her mother tongue, represents her tribe’s history, land and identity. “Our language is very important to us and at the moment, it’s strong and we wish to keep it this way for our grandchildren and all the people that come after us.”

Vietnamese language expert Bui Kim Xuyen agrees. “If ethnic minorities lose their own language and script they lose an important tool of communication and also an important way of confirming their existence and of distinguishing themselves from other ethnicities.

WACC has long been committed to projects and activities that facilitate the use and preservation of mother tongues in different regions of the world. In the Philippines, WACC supported the Dumagat people to provide training workshops and to establish a community-owned school where students could learn the Dumagat language and culture.

In Mexico and Bolivia, WACC helped meet the needs of Mixe and Aymara women by supporting communication training and skills development in their own languages. And in Chile, WACC was one of the first organisations to support the production of teaching materials for young people in Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche people.

On International Mother Language Day, WACC calls on policy-makers at all levels to protect endangered mother tongues and to encourage their use. Such actions increase the chances of survival for cultural minorities and the unique perceptions and understandings they represent, ensuring cultural diversity and affirming human dignity.

The Rev. Randy Naylor
General Secretary, WACC