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© UNICEF Costa Rica/G. Bell

Panama, February 21, 2008 - On the occasion of International Mother Language Day, Nils Kastberg, the Regional Director of UNICEF in Latin America and the Caribbean called on the region to celebrate its rich diversity, by also ensuring every child enjoy their right to speak their native language and to receive an education that respects their values, as defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Although approximately 500 languages are spoken throughout the region, there is little linguistic diversity offered in schools. The bilingual education which indigenous people seek is scarcely offered and generally receives only limited budgets by governments. Not surprisingly then, in the areas where indigenous communities most live are also the areas with the highest indexes of illiteracy, repetition of school years and drop-outs.

“How can an indigenous child learn math or science in a language that he or she doesn’t fully understand?” asks Nils Kastberg. “By denying them schooling in a language they fully understand, what damage are we doing to millions of children, and to what extent are we making them feel like second-class citizens for speaking their native language?”

The year 2008 was declared the International Year of Languages by the United Nations; as such it is opportune to promote the use of indigenous languages in all environments, not just in classrooms, but also in the media, health centers, in the courts and in other public offices.

A language is not only a communication tool, it is also a way to understand and categorize one’s reality, knowledge of nature, social relationships and emotions. UNICEF is calling on indigenous families not to give up speaking their native language, while also encouraging children who speak European-based languages to take on the challenge of learning an indigenous language.

UNICEF supports the efforts of at least 15 countries in the Latin American & Caribbean region in order to guarantee a bilingual education to indigenous children, recognizing indigenous children’s right to an education in their mother tongue.

UNICEF also works to guarantee the indigenous peoples’ right to learn other languages, to communicate with various national and international sectors, as stated in the historic United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples approved in September of 2007.

For further information
Anna Lucia D’Emilio, aldemilio@unicef.org, UNICEF Latin America and Caribbean
Ester Ruiz, eruiz@unicef.org, UNICEF Latin America and Caribbean


UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.


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