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22 Feb, 2012

Half of Global Languages Face Extinction – Int’l Mother Language Day Message


21 Feb 2012 – Have you ever heard of kalkoti? An endangered language identified in 2011 by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, it is spoken by only around 4000 people in a village on the north-western border of Pakistan. It is estimated that nearly half of the approximately 6,000 languages spoken in the world could die out by the end of the century, with 96 percent of these languages spoken by a mere 4 percent of the world’s population.

“Languages are who we are. By protecting them, we protect ourselves,” said UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova in her message on the occasion of the International Day. (For more info on International Mother Language Day, click here.)

Linguistic and cultural diversity are of strategic importance for people around the world in strengthening the unity and cohesion of societies. To recognize the importance of linguistic diversity, the UNESCO General Conference proclaimed International Mother Language Day (IMLD) in November 1999. The International day has since been observed every year throughout the world on 21 February to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingual education. It aims to help develop better awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

“Multilingualism is our ally in ensuring quality education for all, in promoting inclusion and in combating discrimination. Building genuine dialogue must start with respect for languages. […] Linguistic diversity is our common heritage, and it is fragile. […] Multilingualism is a living resource – let us use it for the benefit of all,” said UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova.

There is a growing awareness that languages play a vital role in development, in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, but also in strengthening cooperation, building inclusive knowledge societies, preserving cultural heritage and providing quality education for all. This year’s celebration is dedicated to multilingualism for inclusive education: “Learning in a language they can understand is vital for children to enjoy their right to quality education. Mother Tongue and Multilingual Education are key to reducing discrimination, promoting inclusion and improving learning outcomes for all”.

UNESCO is working every day to protect linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote equality, development and social inclusion. In the Republic of Korea, following the inclusion of the jeju in the critically endangered group of UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, in 2010, several projects are helping inhabitants of the Jeju island preserve the vitality and long-term survival of the jeju language.

In the Solomon Islands, UNESCO is helping to create an environmental encyclopedia in the local Marovo language, thereby preserving the island’s language and knowledge and revitalizing local indigenous communities. In Nicaragua, UNESCO’s Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) programme is working with the indigenous Mayangna people of the BOSAWAS Biosphere Reserve to reinforce the transmission of Mayangna language, knowledge and culture.

With support from Norway, UNESCO published a 2-volume book in the Mayangna language based on their indigenous knowledge of the natural world. Today, a Mayangna team is working with the Ministry of Education to develop pilot teacher manuals and student workbooks that are being tested in rural classrooms across the BOSAWAS Biosphere Reserve.

Adding to the celebrations, a 30-minute short film narrated by Academy Award-winning actor William Hurt was screened at the UN headquarters in New York on Feb 21. The film, entitled “Languages Lost and Found: Speaking & Whistling the Mamma Tongue”, explores diverse linguistic and cultural practices from around the world, pointing out how quickly some languages are disappearing while introducing the native tongue as a crucial vehicle for maintaining culture.

Full Text of Message from Ms Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day UNESCO, 21 February 2012

Nelson Mandela once said that “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”. The language of our thoughts and our emotions is our most valuable asset. Multilingualism is our ally in ensuring quality education for all, in promoting inclusion and in combating discrimination. Building genuine dialogue is premised on respect for languages. Each representation of a better life, each development goal is expressed in a language, with specific words to bring it to life and communicate it. Languages are who we are; by protecting them, we protect ourselves.

UNESCO has celebrated International Mother Language Day for 12 years now and directs its energies towards protecting linguistic diversity. This thirteenth celebration is dedicated to multilingualism for inclusive education. The work of researchers and the impact of multilingualism policies have proven that people perceive intuitively that linguistic diversity accelerates the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and Education for All goals in particular.

Use of the mother tongue at school is a powerful remedy against illiteracy. The challenge, however, lies in achieving this truth in the classroom. Excluded population groups, such as indigenous peoples, are often those whose mother tongues are ignored by education systems. Allowing them to learn from a very early age in their mother tongue, and then in national, official or other languages, promotes equality and social inclusion.

UNESCO Mobile Learning Week has shown that use of mobile technologies in education is an excellent means of boosting inclusive education. Combined with multilingualism, these technologies increase our scope for action tenfold. Let us make the most of them. Our generation is advantaged by having new communication media and a new Internet-based worldwide public arena: it cannot accept an impoverishment of languages.

Linguistic diversity is our common heritage. It is fragile heritage. Nearly half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken in the world could die out by the end of the century. UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is the performance chart for this struggle. Language loss impoverishes humanity. It is a retreat in the defence of everyone’s rights to be heard, to learn and to communicate.

Moreover, each language also conveys cultural heritage that increases our creative diversity. Cultural diversity is as important as biological diversity in nature. They are closely linked. Some indigenous peoples’ languages carry knowledge on the biodiversity and management of ecosystems. This linguistic potential is an asset for sustainable development and deserves to be shared. UNESCO also intends to highlight this message at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio.

The vitality of languages depends on all those who speak them and rally round to protect them. UNESCO pays tribute to them and ensures that their voices are heard when education, development and social cohesion policies are being formulated. Multilingualism is a living resource; let us use it for the benefit of all.