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UN Calls on the World to Protect Indigenous Culture and Languages

The ongoing risks of indigenous language disappearance points to top-down discrimination against minority ethnic groups in various countries.

On the occasion of the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations expresses its concerns over the loss of indigenous languages and cultures due to a lack of state support

With August 9th being the official International Day of Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations addressed concerns about the disappearance of indigenous languages due to insufficient support from states. With cultural groups often lacking media attention, education, and general autonomy, the decision to preserve indigenous cultures extends further than language. “Though language extinction is a ‘natural process’ due to the constant transformation of cultures, it comes with a price, it is not only words that disappear, it is a perspective, a wealth of cultural practices, a worldview,” said United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) representative Frederic Vacheron. Additionally, environmental impacts of urban expansion from nation states has contributed to further pressures on indigenous groups to assimilate to the national identity. As noted by Brazilian anthropologists, inland Amazonian tribes have been in more contact with their Portuguese-speaking neighbors following the destruction of the rain forest. As a result, indigenous languages are not being taught to new generations for the sake of practicality. While historically the preservation of these languages is not typically the priority of government actors, the UN made a formal call to extend protective legislation recognizing even some of the smallest minority languages within their jurisdiction. 

It has been difficult for some native speakers of indigenous groups to stay hopeful despite some government action. In Peru, for example, the introduction of television programs entirely in the native languages of Quechua, Aymara and Ashaninca in 2016, has appeared to be a successful first step, yet complaints about lack of accessibility in health, education, and travel are still common. A metric used to determine the efficacy of a language’s preservation, according to activists, is the ability to successfully navigate through a region without speaking the national language. By this standard, the efforts in many Latin American, Russian, and East Asian governments have been unsuccessful. Former colonial countries in particular, like those in Latin America, have seen indigenous groups accuse their governments of intentionally neglecting their interests in order to promote a more uniform national identity. The main internal issue that activists seem to face is how to promote preservation without isolating indigenous people from the rest of the world. Thus, expanding signage and social spaces to be more inclusive has been in greater favor than designating small territories for the use of indigenous people like the reserves in the United States. This way, the death of a language is not inevitable when trying to live a more practical life in a multilingual country.


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