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Cartwright: Launch of the UN Year of Languages

Speech
for
Dame Silvia Cartwright
Chair, NZ National Commission for UNESCO
at the
Launch of the UN International Year of Languages
Te Papa Tongarewa
21 February 2008

Kia ora koutou, Greetings

Choom-marie-up-sue-ah (Cambodian greeting)

I would like to welcome you all to the New Zealand launch of the UN International Year of Languages on what is also, the International Day of Mother Language. Our colleagues from the Human Rights Commission, Te Taura Whiri i te reo Maori, the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage: Welcome. Minister of Education Chris Carter and Minister of Maori Development, Parekura Horomia, Greetings, Tena korua.

We have youngsters from Clyde Quay School here today, we also have students from Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Nga Mokopuna, Wellington High School and Bishop Viard College in Porirua. Thank you for coming, thank you for learning another language: it will be young people like you who will decide whether a language lives or dies.
Tena koutou katoa, Talofa Lava, Kia orana, Fakalofa Lahi Atu, Taloha Ni, Ni Sa Bula Vinaka, Ia Orana, Malo Lelei

As we gather today we are celebrating our unity in diversity, our shared heritage, and, our shared futures: UNESCO is convinced that humankind’s most powerful tools to preserve and develop our tangible and intangible heritage are our languages.

Last year the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Languages. Today’s launch also coincides with International Mother Language Day, celebrated every 21st February since 2000. The United Nations has entrusted the coordination of the International Year of Languages to UNESCO. The New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO is coordinating this year’s celebrations and working in partnership with key partners already mentioned - the Human Rights Commission; Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori; the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs; and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

UNESCO’s role is to act as a coordinating agency and to use our website as a means of facilitating communication. We invite organisations and individuals to get involved in the UN International Year by visiting www.unesco.org.nz and linking to various initiatives that are already underway. We would also welcome more information on language projects so that we can highlight them throughout the year.

When languages fade, so too does our world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. We lose so many things: opportunities, traditions, memories, unique ways of thinking and expression: irreplaceable tools to ensure a better future are also lost.

Our own United Nations experts predict of the seven thousand languages currently spoken worldwide, fifty per cent will die out in only two generations: an ancient world language disappearing forever every fortnight.

UNESCO’s work encourages the development of regional and national policies that provide direction for the harmonious use of languages in a given community and country. These policies support the rights of people to speak their mother tongue in private and public domains throughout their home nation. We encourage people to learn another language from their country or region.

UNESCO champions multilingualism throughout the world not only as a way to preserve our living heritage – but also as a powerful tool for peace and tolerance. Language co-existence as opposed to language conflict is our goal. Language co-existence policies are viewed in many multi-lingual and multi-racial nations as a necessity. However coherent language policies are also critical in nations like our own. Here in New Zealand, the monolingual and monocultural language policies of past governments have had a devastating impact on the health and status of te reo Maori.

Today I wish also to acknowledge the impact that the recent apology by the Australian government will have for the people of Australia, particularly its indigenous people, and for the retention of their languages. The apology reflects the growing international awareness and respect for indigenous people’s rights as well as the protection of basic human rights for all people. We convey our admiration and respect for what has been achieved.

Alarmingly many mother tongues from throughout our region are in grave danger: the future for several Pacific languages – Niue, Rarotongan Maori and Tokelau - appears grim. Experts estimate that you need one hundred thousand fluent speakers of a language for it to be a truly living language: the sheer numbers required is a huge hurdle for many small post colonial communities. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, the struggle to secure our national language for future generations of New Zealanders is one that is ongoing, and is a battle that dedicated champions of te reo Maori have been fighting on many fronts, for many years. The challenge for us all : is to join them.
Everyone, from individuals, organisations and decision makers must make an effort to keep our languages alive: from speaking your mother tongue in your own home; to encouraging multilingualism in your workplace or your children’s kindergarten; to strengthening government policies that will nurture and strengthen these kinds of initiatives.

The only way we will be able to save a language is by understanding the importance of retaining it, working together, talking together and planning our futures together.

ENDS

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