Indigenous languages matter for peace and development


While promoting linguistic diversity and multilingualism in cyberspace, we discover every day new users and partners. The participation of indigenous people must be an integral part of the sustainable development processes.

A key message drawn from the High-level panel, organized by UNESCO during the WSIS Forum 2019 on 10 April 2019 in Geneva, is that promoting linguistic diversity and multilingualism through ICTs contributes to the preservation, access and promotion of the invaluable traditional knowledge imbued in languages. In order to achieve fruitful results and produce effective language technologies, it is key that indigenous peoples and indigenous language users in the first place are involved in their elaboration.

Linguistic digital divide

The panelists addressed key issues related to the growing digital divide between speakers of dominant and minority languages, caused by the limited availability of resources, as well as lack of access to, technologies for indigenous language users.

Only few language technologies have been developed in lesser-used, minority languages – from basic ones such as grammar and spell checkers, to complex ones such as automatic summarization, search engines, speech recognition, etc. The Sami Parliament, in cooperation with the Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø), is engaged in initiatives for the creation of free and accessible technologies for Sami speakers, including computer and phone keyboards, spelling and grammar checkers, machine translation systems. Sharing such practices, knowledge and strategies represents a way forward to reduce the digital exclusion of indigenous peoples:

‘We are trying to develop a momentum among all indigenous people in the world to urge major tech companies to take their responsibilities; it is our hope that governments will commit themselves to improve the situation for indigenous language users, by implementing legislations that secure and  support the digital inclusion of indigenous languages’

Lásse-Ivvár Erke – Eirik Larsen, Political Advisor of the Sami Parliament in Norway

Another relevant initiative was launched by WIPO through the Open Access Policy developed in 2016 to promote the translation and reproduction of publications available on its website in different indigenous languages. As noted by Rebecka Forsgren, indigenous fellow at WIPO, this contributes to the promotion of their traditional knowledge and protection of their intellectual property.


There are a series of political, cultural, socio-economic and technical challenges that prevent the development and mainstreaming of language technologies in minority, lesser-user languages. As stressed by Professor Joseph Mariani, Director of Research Emeritus, Mechanical and Computer Engineering Laboratory (LIMSI), French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS, France), developing language technologies requires two fundamental ‘ingredients’: language resources (corpora, dictionaries, terminology databases, etc.) and language technology evaluation. Most technologies are presently based on Artificial Intelligence Machine Learning, which requires large amounts of data (billions of words, thousands hours of speech), and the larger the data, the better the systems. Rich datasets are not available for all languages, nor speakers of minority languages have the right means or set of skills to develop strategies for the promotion of their own languages online. For this reason, strong documentation efforts are needed in order to ensure inter-generational transmission.

In today’s world, ICT literacy and access to broadband connectivity are prerequisites for the fulfillment of human rights and for participation in society. Several indigenous communities inhabit isolated rural areas and struggle on a daily basis to have access to electricity and internet, the content of which is still 50% in English language and therefore inaccessible for these groups. This proportion markedly contrasts with the number of languages spoken offline. To this regard, spoken language interfaces are especially interesting, as they only require simple, cheap, largely available cell phones, and can be used by those who are not able to read or write.

Concurrently, private-sector organizations are increasingly supporting multilingualism by shifting their focus from languages ranked according to countries with the highest GDP, to developing language technologies in multiple languages, including minority ones and from low GDP countries. As stressed by Emily Taylor, CEO of Oxford Information Labs, Internationalized domain names (IDNs) have a great potential to increase linguistic diversity in the cyberspace. Since 2011, UNESCO has collaborated with EURid to produce the World Report on IDNs, with the support of Verisign and the regional ccTLD organisations.

The Way forward: a Multi-stakeholder partnership

Equipping indigenous language users with the necessary tools to benefit from latest digital developments requires the joint-efforts of multiple stakeholders, from indigenous language users themselves, to the public and the private sector, academia, and civil society organizations.

Multi-stakeholder partnership is one of the key pillars on which the Action Plan for IYIL2019 is based. It is critical to think collectively and concretely about how to adjust technological developments and AI to serve all languages. In view of the fact that 95% of languages in the world are spoken by only 6% of the world population, there is need for new research directions and business strategies to reduce the cost for developing indigenous language technologies, and to encourage knowledge-sharing practices and their mainstreaming at the international level to enhance profit as well as contribute to global development.

UNESCO, as lead agency for the organization of the International Year of Indigenous languages, works closely with Member states, UN Agencies, the members of the Steering Committee for the organization of the International year, and other partners, for the successful implementation of the Action plan for IYIL2019. A series of activities and initiatives have been put in place and are planned according to the following five intervention areas:

Additionally, several concrete measures to promote access to knowledge in cyberspace, including for indigenous language users, are proposed by UNESCO within the framework of the implementation of its 2003 Recommendation concerning the promotion and use of multilingualism and universal access to cyberspace.


More information about the IYIL2019: