International Decade of Indigenous Languages, 2022-2032

Mexico is home to localities where there is only one speaker of any language. The United Nations declared the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, 2022-2032.

International Decade of Indigenous Languages, 2022-2032
Linguistic and cultural diversity. Photo by Max Böhme / Unsplash

Mexico is one of the eight nations in the world with the greatest diversity of languages (along with Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Nigeria, India, Cameroon, Australia, and Brazil); however, 60 percent are in danger of disappearing. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), more than 7,000 languages are spoken in the world, of which nearly 6,700 are indigenous languages and 40 percent are at risk of being lost; if this were the case, a unique feature of human history would cease to exist.

University historian Miguel León-Portilla agreed: "If biological diversity is a great treasure, cultural and linguistic diversity is even more so. Each language is like a watchtower that allows us to appreciate the entire universe with different approaches that bring us closer to it in multiple ways. The diversity of linguistic variants contributes to opening new paths to human thought, communication, and creativity. When a language dies, humanity is impoverished".  According to information from the National Institute of Indigenous Languages, it is estimated that one language disappears every two weeks.

Faced with this emergency, the United Nations declared the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, 2022-2032, "to draw the world's attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote them, as well as to take urgent national and international measures to protect them".

Carolina Sánchez García, an academic from UNAM's University Program for the Study of Cultural Diversity and Interculturality (PUIC), highlights the preservation of indigenous languages throughout time despite the processes that native peoples have gone through, such as colonization; this refers to their strategies to maintain them. However, there is now a concern to undertake actions that allow the continuity of their use on the planet.

Citing figures from UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, the university professor points out that 3.8 percent are extinct; 9.6 percent in a critical situation; 8.95 in danger; 10.65 in danger, and 9.85 percent in a vulnerable situation.

There are 68 linguistic groupings and 364 variants in Mexico. Some of those in extreme danger of disappearing are: Ku'ahl and Kiliwa, from Baja California; Awakateko, Campeche; Mochó, Chiapas; Ayapaneco, Tabasco; Ixil Nebajeño and Kaqchikel, Quintana Roo; Zapotec from Mixtepec, and Ixcatec and Zapotec from San Felipe Tejalápam, Oaxaca. "If we look at the statistics we find that there is a very low number of speakers of these languages. A thorough review of the census can lead us to find localities where there is only one speaker," warns the researcher.

Extinction process

It is necessary to deepen the knowledge of what is happening with the reproduction of indigenous languages and what are the factors that influence their extinction. The first element was colonization, which led to the stigmatization of the peoples and their cultures, to processes of discrimination that persist to this day. There are cases where mothers do not teach their children to practice their language to prevent them from being mistreated or rejected in certain social contexts and educational spaces, particularly in places of destination of migration, such as large cities.

The most important challenge is to promote and preserve the value and importance of Mexico's linguistic and cultural diversity, which today is a source of discrimination and racism.

None of the rights of indigenous peoples are fully guaranteed, and they even face new problems such as violence, displacement, and dispossession of their lands. "Unfortunately that is the reality; another example is that the average level of schooling of this sector is only 6.2 years, and only 4.6 percent have reached a professional training level, according to INEGI data from 2020", highlights the university professor.

The empowerment of speakers is the main aspect of the strategic roadmap for the Decade of Indigenous Languages, approved on February 28, 2020, in Mexico City, at the end of the high-level meeting "Building a Decade of Actions for Indigenous Languages".

It has to do with opening spaces for them to promote their initiatives to revitalize, promote and preserve their languages so that they can be central actors in the development of actions. But sufficient resources are also needed to promote projects or programs aimed at the indigenous population.