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World: UN's Mother Language Day Focuses On Conserving World's Linguistic Heritage

  • Charles Carlson

UNESCO -- the UN's Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization -- will mark on 23 February the fifth International Mother Language Day, which celebrates the world's nearly 6,000 languages as the "shared heritage of humanity." Linguists warn, however, that at least 40 percent of these languages are expected to die out during this century.

Prague, 20 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In a statement marking International Mother Language Day, Konchiro Matsuura, the director-general of UNESCO, cited the UN holiday as a way to "celebrate nearly 6,000 languages, all creations of human genius, each expressing in a unique way a vision of the world, a coherent system of values and meanings."

He said it is a "genuine challenge" to ensure that these languages -- 95 percent of which are spoken by only 4 percent of the world's population -- continue to be used alongside the world's major languages.

By celebrating International Mother Language day, UNESCO is striving to contribute to the protection of the world's cultural diversity.

"Every time we lose a language, we lose one vision of the world."
David Crystal, one of the world's foremost authorities on language, spoke with RFE/RL recently about the importance of language diversity and the need to preserve languages that are endangered: "Language diversity is the equivalent of human diversity," he said. "The human race has been so successful on the planet because of its ability to adapt to an enormous range of circumstances. I think language is the intellectual equivalent of our biological capabilities. It's so important, first to be able to keep our minds busy, as it were, and one of the ways in which we can do this is by seeing how each language captures a vision of the world in a different way. Every time we lose a language, we lose one vision of the world."

UNESCO's Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage -- adopted by the UNESCO General Conference last October -- makes explicit reference to languages as vehicles of the international cultural heritage.

There is no consensus about the number of languages spoken in the world today because there is no general agreement on what constitutes a language and what constitutes a dialect.

Nicholas Ostler is the president of the Society for Endangered Languages, based in Bath, England. Ostler further alludes to the seriousness of the situation: "The situation of the languages of the world at the moment is a fairly parlous one. There are reckoned to be between 6,000 and 7,000 languages in the world today. And the median size of a language is 6,000 people, which means that most of the languages of the world -- or at least half of them -- have fewer than 6,000 people [speaking them]."

It becomes imperative, therefore, that endangered languages at least be documented, if not saved. Ostler: "Some of these languages, maybe half of them, have been contacted by linguists and are known of, are described in various ways. But many more, which would amount to perhaps 2,000 languages in the world, have never been contacted in this way. And so, if they cease to be spoken, it will be as if they had never been. Nobody would know what these languages have been like." It is estimated that, on average, two languages disappear each month.

Endangered languages are distributed evenly around the world. An ethnologic database maintained by SIL International, a Christian missionary organization, lists 417 languages as "nearly extinct," with only a few, elderly, speakers still living.

Regarding the distribution of these languages, Ostler said: "The situation of languages all over the world is very, very varied. In Europe and in places where Western civilization, such as it is, has been developed over a long period, the languages tend to have literate traditions and to be known about. Even one of the weakest languages in Europe, Cornish, has a literary tradition which goes back many centuries. But in most of the rest of the world -- in Africa, in the Americas, in Asia, and in Austral-Asia -- most languages live in a situation where the written word is not used. There is no literature, and hence, there tends to be no permanent record."

Festivities at UNESCO headquarters in Paris will include a keynote speech by Matsuura; songs sung in their local languages by children from Armenia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Japan, and Madagascar; and the showing of extracts from a documentary on endangered languages called "The Last Word." Activities will also take place in countries throughout the world.