Language Matters – International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

As a 16-year-old high school student, sitting at a bus stop next to an elderly Tongan woman, I open my mouth and say Malo e Lelei, her face lights up as she responds back. She speaks of the joy she feels using the language of her homeland.  Growing up in a multi-generational household language was the bridge that connected one generation to another.  It was and continues to be my taonga (treasure).    

Languages play a fundamental role in the daily lives of all peoples. 

The United Nations recognises it as being pivotal in the areas of human rights protection, peace building and sustainable development, through ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue. However, despite their immense value, languages around the world continue to disappear at an alarming rate due to a variety of factors. Those most effected, indigenous people.

Globally, there are an estimated 370 million indigenous people living across 90 countries.  While they make up less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, they account for 15 per cent of the world’s poorest.  For centuries Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, their way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources, yet history teaches us that the violation of these rights is still an ongoing battle.

The United Nation tells us that indigenous people are:
  • More likely to be poor and vulnerable;
  • Live shorter lives; and that
  • Indigenous women more likely to suffer violence and discrimination.

In our homeland of Aotearoa New Zealand, previous legislations allowed for the confiscation of land.  Legislations like the Native Schools Act 1867 also took the right to speak Te Reo Māori from Māori in an attempt to assimilate our indigenous people into Pākehā society.  By 1985, only 12 percent of the Māori population could speak Te Reo Māori. 

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples falls on the 9th of August each year in an attempt to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population.  The year 2019 also marks the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

As we recognise the rights of Indigenous people, I reflect on the gift on language, and what it would have been like for me, had mine been taken from me. Language assists with ‘cultural connectedness and identity’ for children and young people, it is a taonga to be shared and passed on.  In today’s society it is estimated that, every 2 weeks, an indigenous language disappears, placing at risk the respective indigenous cultures and knowledge systems.

As a nation of Aotearoa, we are beginning to recognise the value of language more and more.  So, as we celebrate Cook Island Language week and consider the Indigenous people of the world let the theme of this year’s Cook Island Language Week resonate with as all.

Taku rama, taau toi: ora te Reo – My Torch, Your Adze: The Language Lives.  Let us speak our native languages so that they can survive indefinitely.

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