International Congress on Languages at Risk (Mexico City, 25-28 February 2020)

José Antonio Flores Farfán

José Antonio Flores Farfán, delegate of Linguapax in Latin America, has made a summary of the congress, given us his personal view and explaining how he believes the event can have an effect on the revaluation of minority languages worldwide, and especially in Mexico.

As part of the closing of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages and on the launch of the Decade of Indigenous Languages organised by UNESCO; in conjunction with the National Institute of Indigenous Languages and the Ministry of Culture of Mexico, the International Congress of Languages at Risk was held in Mexico City from February 25 to February 28, 2020. The Congress brought together about 450 participants from around the world with the intention of “Carrying out a decade of action in favor of indigenous languages 2022-2032”, under the slogan “nothing for us without us.” The Voices from Earth exhibition was also held. It was a rather representative, although not exhaustive, sample of linguistic diversity in the world, which showed the magnitude of such organisation and the notoriously meagre resources available for its development, not to mention cultivation and strengthening of linguistic diversity.

The official languages of the Congress were Spanish, English and Nahuatl, the historical language spoken in the region of the Mexican plateau in the Valley of central Mexico. The slogan of the Congress, “nothing for us without us”, encourages to cease excluding languages from the public and social arena. A discrimination that unfortunately is still very prevalent in the context of sociocultural, economic and political life in global society, which also represents the perpetuation of human inequality and sadly still strongly characterises the planet. Forms of oppression from which languages are not exempt at all, languages as a reliable index of human development and the respect for human rights, conveying key features constitutive of the very foundation of biological, cultural and socioeconomic diversity; some of the congress highlights.

The structure of the Congress included two days of presentations of various experiences in favor of linguistic diversity globally (see the attached link for the program).

Another two days were devoted to the so called “high-level” event, entitled Making a decade of action for indigenous languages. This organisation alludes to the more deliberative character in the explicit intention of the entire event. In this regard, the Los Pinos Declaration was proposed, a draft to which the attendees were invited to provide comments and suggestions. I have partly based this summary on these comments, given that it is impossible to report the number of participations of the simultaneous sessions, which is certainly one of the disadvantages of Congresses. For the most part, I will refer to the final document in general, and particularly to significant speeches that I had the opportunity to attend and even participate in.

Linguapax’s participation was represented in the international panel of threatened languages and linguistic policies with a regional focus in which Mònica Pereña, current president of the entity, spoke about the diversity of languages in Europe. The person who endorses these lines, participated in one of the thematic sessions, presenting the Accompanying Group for Threatened Languages (GALA for its Spanish acronym), a group fighting for a radical change in language policies, pursuing, among other actions, revitalisation projects carried out in Mexico (see attached link/program). Unfortunately, there is still little echo in public institutions to successfully manage linguistic diversity, pretty telling of one of the greatest challenges presented in the Congress: closing the gap between different sectors in favor of linguistic rights, generating constructive synergies from multiple voices, consequently leading to a greater and better management of linguistic diversity between multiple sectors of global society.

As part of the sustainable development goals set by the UN itself and debated in the Congress,

the high-level event, which mainly guides the decisions for the Decade, was organized in turn in two days. The first day, February 27, held presentations aimed at highlighting strategic actions for the Decade of Indigenous Languages based on the experience of the International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019. The second day, February 28, was organised as Thematic Discussion Forums, including issues such as t the creation of a World Atlas of Languages, one of the more tangible suggested goals of the Decade. In my opinion, this should be distinguished from existing resources in constituting an instrument for the construction of peace in the framework of the appreciation, beyond academic contemplation, celebrating the development of linguistic diversity and its multiple social and educational implications, one of the stated aims of the UN through UNESCO.

Among many other issues raised and promoted by the Congress, the need for short, mid and long-term efforts from different sectors of local and global society in favor of linguistic diversity in all areas of public and private life were highlighted. For this aim, it is imperative to include indigenous peoples’ agency, the undeniable and irreplaceable focus of language planning, in their engagement with civil society; including companies, national states and academia. This is a goal that is far from having even been fully outlined, a crucial specific aim of the event that outstands as one of its principal desiderata, presumably for the future. All in all, this clearly indicates the current state of affairs of language endangerment and invites to change paradigms and search for more robust collaborative methodologies as part of constructing better agendas for good practices in linguistic revitalization and development with communities themselves.

From my point of view, one of the highlights of this Congress is surely the aim for a change of narrative, putting an end to the mourning, catastrophic, fatalistic and pessimistic view of the future of linguistic diversity in the world; reaching a much more proactive stance, with determined actions in favor of the (re)valuation and development of the great wealth encrypted in the languages of the world. Even when such a necrophiliac approach of linguistic diversity has played an important role as one of the actions that can be carried out in favor of linguistic rights in as much it raises language awareness and a call for action, this approach has also prevailed over too many decades and is still frequently encountered. Therefore, it urgently calls for a very different approach: a more biophilic one. This “new” approach, subscribed and promoted by Linguapax since its inception, does not deny the threat that the forces of globalisation exert on linguistic diversity; yet, such desired more proactive approach on linguistic diversity stresses that globalisation can and should also be a resource and opportunity to strengthen the rich linguistic heritage of the planet hand in hand with the rights of its speakers. 

Linguistic diversity is then conceived as one of the key elements for sustainable development of human rights, especially linguistic, developing a  linguistics of peace, harmony and harmonious coexistence; stated aims of the sustainable development agenda of the UN that, in the Congress, found a channel to systematically maturing out best practices  of  language  planning and linguistic strategic intervention. Yet, this is, in my opinion, too future-oriented, as reflected in the Declaración de los Pinos, whose final version we hope will soon be public.

In this regard, the need for real and strong state language and education policies, still very precarious globally, is highlighted beyond rhetorical statements; policies that should pursue both multilingual and total language immersion programs, inspired by experiences that have shown that it is possible to be successful in managing diversity around the world (such as the Maori case), with all its multiple benefits.

Taking into account the specific characteristics of each local language in its own region, initiatives should be taken to develop streams to strengthening languages, such as culturally and linguistic sensitive curriculum development, with suitable linguistic and pedagogical programs in which language teaching and learning is not so much an object of study, but, above all, a means of use, instruction and research, accreditation and quality training in all pubic spheres; a means to, certainly, speak freely in any field of social and professional life. In order to achieve such endeveours, it is crucial to build capacity training, educational programs and materials, together with the deployment of professional skills in all public domains. So far, there have been little or nearly non-existent similar efforts in most of the languages of the world. Training personnel with supplies with belonging, pertinence, and linguistic and cultural identity in all the minority languages of the world, which are the majority globally, such as, in the health or justice sectors, is still terra ignota in most of the globe’s languages.

The Congress struggled to identify these types of needs and requirements that will have to be focused not only in the future, but I would say as soon as possible, in a much greater and better numbers, in novel educational programs  with culturally sensitive materials in thousands of languages, developing them in different contemporary media with the active participation of indigenous authors and financial support at all levels, in tongues that have often not  been written or even described, but rather minoritised, discriminated and even unfortunately abandoned. and obliterated.

Even though, as Fishman would say, congresses can do little to tackle the processes of linguistic and cultural shift, this Congress in particular at least allowed the creation of programmatic  document for action and a somewhat more democratic structure of participation for decision-making in the management of linguistic diversity, which is cultural, biological and human diversity. In principle, the Los Pinos Declaration should at least allow the insistence on warranting solid mechanisms of democratic participation, in order to define the sustainable linguistic development agenda in terms of linguistic policy, touching on key issues for its creation and deployment over many years to come. All this is reflected in the annexed programs with outstanding topics such as the relationship between indigenous languages, climate change and biodiversity, digital technologies and the media in their development, the financing mechanisms to which multi-donors are invited, indigenous languages in all public settings, health, education and justice. The construction of new and better relationships that are more beneficial to worldwide linguistic diversity, between academia, indigenous peoples and states, and even companies, among other topics that were highlighted and debated to a greater or lesser extent, are all crucial for the well-being of future generations of speakers.

We are very far from achieving these goals, which is why one of the outstanding results of the Congress is its programmatic nature, hopefully encouraging dialogue, to achieve a series of goals such as identifying challenges, problems and suggested solutions to enhance linguistic diversity, allow me to insist, both for the future and present times. Even still as an early affirmation phase of the value of linguistic diversity awareness, at least not from a necrophiliac approach, but from a much more formed and informed stance in terms of languages as a fundamental cross-cutting edge for human development and an agenda for better societies in terms of language equality as a human right, with the subsequent improvement of the quality of global democracy.

Hopefully this Congress and its final Declaration will form a robust instrument for the creation of a language development agenda in accordance with the UN’s sustainable development goals. Even so, this decade is still considered as a phase for the consolidation of an agenda of more determined actions in the following decade, which raises the need to carry out more transcendent and determined actions today, beneficial to  current, actual living diversity, together with long run goals in the short and midterm. Beyond prospective strategic planning for one and many decades to come favouring today best practices in language planning requires going beyond somewhat conventional, not to say orthodox, conceptions of linguistic research and policies. As Linguapax via the GALA group we try to contribute to the final Declaration of Los Pinos. Hopefully, all participations will be taken into account, particularly with a positioning that deploys affective and effective actions and strategies, including a solid implementation and funding schemes, as well as a broad democratic participation, in favor of global linguistic diversity, aspirations that are still far from being a reality in contemporary practices. However, at least the Congress shaped the possibility, of envisioning best practices in language planning. All in all, the Congress succeeded in becoming a great opportunity to advance a greater and better understanding and management of linguistic diversity in the world. For more information, access this link: