Languages matter . . . to SIL International

Evan Falk, Staff Photographer at SIL
SIL Executive Director, Dr. Michel Kenmogne

(January 2019) International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL), as declared by the United Nations for 2019, couldn’t come too soon for SIL International Executive Director, Dr. Michel Kenmogne.

“Humanity and its cultural diversity is at risk if nothing is done to celebrate and promote the indigenous languages of the world,” Kenmogne says.

You would expect that from the leader of an organization whose 4,500 personnel have an “undivided commitment” to serve the globe’s indigenous peoples. SIL has been serving in this way for eight decades, working alongside local language communities, governments, international NGOs and multilateral organizations.

“SIL has been active in hundreds of these communities around the world, working towards the development and use of indigenous languages to serve the changing needs of their speakers across the generations,” Kenmogne says. “We’ve been advocating for the rights of these languages and their ability to provide a more reliable basis for education and the effective growth of their speakers.”

Kenmogne sees the importance of IYIL not only as the leader of SIL, but as a minority language speaker himself.

Being one of 350,000 speakers of Ghomálá’, a language in Cameroon, Kenmogne says IYIL gives him a sense of hope, because it brings focus to the plight and worth of non-dominant language groups in a globalizing world that often marginalizes them. IYIL highlights the value of language and stresses that every people’s dignity needs to be recognized in the tapestry of mankind’s cultural diversity.

IYIL means that people should not be ashamed of the languages they speak, Kenmogne says. “Instead, they need to assert their value and worth by committing to speak them, to transmit them to the next generations, and to seek opportunities to use their linguistic and cultural specificities to enrich the communities around the globe where they find themselves.”

Kenmogne is hopeful that IYIL can:

  • increase response to the needs of indigenous language speakers, as many of them face the threat of extinction in this century,
  • empower indigenous communities to take more responsibility for maintaining their languages to serve the changing needs of their speakers,
  • yield greater collaboration between SIL and UNESCO to create global strategies to ensure that indigenous languages and communities  are revitalized and promoted,
  • prompt governments and organizations to do language mapping of cities and nations— where migrant peoples speaking indigenous languages have relocated—as a basis for just and inclusive policies and actions.

Fundamentally, Kenmogne says, each person’s identity is fixed around a set of beliefs, values, behaviours and a worldview that are expressed in a language that shaped them all. 

“This language, sometimes called the ‘mother tongue,’ always communicates more than a message to its speakers: it has an emotional and symbolic value that nothing else can replace.”

SIL is pleased that 2019 has been declared as International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) by the United Nations. For us, every year is a year to celebrate languages. That’s because researching, revitalizing and promoting use of lesser-known languages is at the heart of who we are and what we have been doing for the past 85 years.This article is one in a series that explains SIL’s work as it relates to key themes of IYIL.