Promoting multilingualism on Mother Language Day

Since 1950 at least 240 languages have died, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). That’s a cultural extinction rate of one language every three months over the last 60 years.

Worse news is that the language mortality rate may be accelerating dramatically.

“Half of the 6,700 languages spoken today are in danger of disappearing before the century ends, a process that can be slowed only if urgent action is taken by governments and speaker communities,” Unesco says on its Web site.

By my math, this worst-case scenario is an extinction rate of a language death every ten days between now and the year 2100.

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This map from the Unesco Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger shows the location of more than 200 languages that have no more than 10 speakers. The problem of disappearing tongues is clearly global.



Unesco Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger shows the location of the 519 languages that have no more than 100 speakers. The online Atlas aims to provide speaker communities, policy-makers and the general public with state-of-the-art knowledge, continually updated by a growing network of experts and community members.

Why does it matter that fewer languages are spoken? Isn’t there merit in all of us speaking the same language?

Every time we lose a language we lose human experience, creativity, and a unique perspective of ourselves and the world. We are all weaker every time it happens.

There is something we can do about it–and it’s not only a matter of protecting and promoting our own mother tongue. Language and cultural experts tell us that the best way to protect human cultural diversity is to celebrate and share it. Celebrate our own language, yes, but also learn and respect the languages of others.

The essence of living heritage

The vital role of language in the expression and transmission of living heritage was enshrined in a United Nations convention in 2003.

“All intangible cultural heritage domains–from knowledge about the universe to rituals, performing arts to handicrafts–depend on language for their day-to-day practice and inter-generational transmission. In the domain of oral traditions and expressions, language is not only a vehicle of intangible heritage, it is their very essence,” Unesco says.


International Mother Language Day, proclaimed by the General Conference of UNESCO in November 1999, has been observed yearly since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

The eleventh International Mother Language Day, today, February 21, 2010, is being celebrated in the framework of the International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures. An international sympisum to discuss these matters is being held in Paris this week.

“By virtue of the numerous activities that have marked this celebration for ten years, the importance of linguistic diversity and multilingualism is now recognized,” said Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, in a statement on the occasion of International Mother Day Language 2010.

“Over the years, the many and essential roles played by languages in the educational, cultural and economic fabric of our societies have come to be better understood,” Bokova added.

“The mother language, in which the first words are uttered and individual thought expressed, is the foundation for the history and culture of each individual.

“Moreover, it has been proven that children learn best when they are instructed in their mother language during their first years at school.”

Mother language and multilingualism

The concept of mother language complements that of multilingualism, which UNESCO strives to promote, by encouraging the acquisition of at least three levels of language proficiency: a mother language, a national language and a language of

communication, Bokova said.

Languages are the best vehicles of mutual understanding and tolerance, she explained. “Respect for all languages is a key factor for ensuring peaceful coexistence, without exclusion, of societies and all of their members.

“Multilingualism, which can be defined as the harmonious accommodation of different languages spoken within a common space, therefore becomes an essential component of educational and cultural policies, to which attention must increasingly be paid.

“The learning of foreign languages…must be promoted as a constructive and structural element of modern education.”

“At the same time, the learning of foreign languages and, as a result, the individual ability to use several languages encourages openness towards diversity and understanding of other cultures. As such, it must be promoted as a constructive and structural element of modern education.”

Because of the increased pace of communication in our globalized world, translation is enjoying a level of growth unprecedented in the history of humanity, Bokova said. “For it to become a genuine tool for reciprocal dialogue and knowledge, we must promote a more diversified and even more balanced context of cultural and scientific exchange.

“Multilingualism, the learning of foreign languages and translation are three strategic axes for the language policies of tomorrow. On the occasion of this 11th International Mother Language Day, I am appealing to the international community to give the mother language, in each of these three axes, its rightful, fundamental place, in a spirit of respect and tolerance which paves the way for peace,” Bokova said.


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The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has linked up with the National Geographic Society to form the Enduring Voices Project, which strives to preserve endangered languages by identifying language hotspots–the places with the most unique, poorly understood, or threatened indigenous languages–and documenting the languages and cultures within them. For more details, visit the Enduring Voices Project Web site.

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Changing Planet

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn