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International Year of Indigenous Languages

At least 43 percent of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world today are endangered. Many of these belong to indigenous peoples and if something doesn't change soon, UNESCO predicts that we will lose as many as 3,000 indigenous languages by the end of this century. In an effort to raise public awareness of this threat to the world's cultural and linguistic diversity, the UN General Assembly has proclaimed 2019 to be the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Read this page to get more information about the status of indigenous languages and why it is important to preserve them.

Why are indigenous languages disappearing?

Each Indigenous language is strongly connected to its respective culture. In many cases, these cultures are gradually disappearing as a result of land grabbing, conflicts, climate change and economic development projects that impact their traditional ways of living. External influences have a role to play as well. Fewer and fewer children are learning their indigenous languages from their parents or grandparents. This means that it is often only the elder generations that have knowledge of the language. If that knowledge isn’t recorded in writing or in audio, the language becomes extinct as soon as the last language holders leave this world.

Many of the world’s remaining indigenous languages are spoken by less than a thousand people.

 Five quick facts about languages

  • There are approximately 7,000 languages in the World today, but scholars have counted just 23 languages in use among more than half of the globe’s population of seven billion.
  • The world’s 370 million indigenous peoples are estimated to speak more than 4,000 different languages.
  • Approximately 600 languages have disappeared in the last century and they continue to disappear at a rate of one language every two weeks.
  • UNESCO predicts that between 50-90% of indigenous languages (app. 3000 languages) will disappear by the end of this century, being replaced with English, Mandarin or Spanish.
  • Language is crucial to the definition of indigenous identity, their dignity as distinct peoples and the security of their traditional knowledge and practices. 

Why is it important to preserve indigenous languages?

Languages play a crucial role in all of our daily lives. It is through language that we communicate, exchange knowledge and build relationships with others; but language is also a repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions and memory. When indigenous languages disappear, an integral part of indigenous peoples’ culture disappears with it.

Through the Indigenous Navigator project, a community-based survey was designed and conducted in more than 92 indigenous communities. 74.4% of these communities’ report that their primary indigenous language is in danger of disappearing.


Moreover, each indigenous language is a unique expression of our diversity that holds a single understanding of the world and different methods of living in it. If we lose any of these encyclopedias of knowledge that dates back thousands of years, we suffer an irreplaceable loss that diminishes all of us. This is especially true since indigenous languages possess a wealth of knowledge that can help address one of the humanity’s greatest challenges: how to live in a sustainable manner and maintain biological diversity across the world’s remaining ecosystems.

What can be done to protect indigenous languages?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is leading the International Year of Indigenous Languages plan of events and activities that promote indigenous languages by focusing on three directions:

  • Creating momentum for maintaining indigenous languages;
  • Enabling indigenous people’s access to education and information; and
  • Promoting indigenous knowledge to help these communities pass their languages, customs and traditions to their children.

Indigenous peoples have themselves stressed that, in order to preserve their languages, States must enact appropriate legislation and policies to guarantee and protect their rights. However, mindsets must also change so people accept linguistic diversity and enable the survival of all indigenous languages. 

Protecting indigenous languages is first and foremost dependent on empowering indigenous communities by drawing support for indigenous culture and traditions as well as the defense of their rights. IWGIA works with over 30 different indigenous partners globally to promote and protect indigenous peoples’ rights and empower them to participate in relevant processes.

You can help promote and protect indigenous peoples' rights by supporting our work. Read more here >>

Five Core human rights conventions and declarations related to indigenous peoples

Several international declarations and agreements that acknowledge the rights of indigenous peoples have been adopted internationally. Here are some of the most important:

You can read more about the International Labor Organisation and its work with indigenous peoples' rights here >>

Read more about indigenous issues

We publish The Indigenous World every year. It is a one-of-a-kind documentation tool that offers a comprehensive yearly overview of the developments indigenous peoples are experiencing around the world. The 2018 edition was written by 83 authors and covers the latest developments in 56 countries and 13 international processes. It is free, and you can download it here >>

Are you interested in the latest developments facing indigenous peoples in one specific country? Then visit our database and choose your country to get the latest update here >>


Tags: Land rights, Global governance, Climate, Human rights, IWGIA



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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