21 February 2002 Fully half of the world’s approximately 6,000 languages are under threat, seriously endangered or dying, according to the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), which today marked International Mother Language Day.
UNESCO’s updated Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing reports that some 50 European languages are in danger, while in Asia, the situation is “uncertain in many parts of China.” India has maintained its linguistic diversity thanks to government policies. The Pacific region’s over 2,000 languages are generally “alive and well,” but there are several “crisis areas” including New Caledonia, where French has had a “devastating influence,” and Australia, where a record number of languages have disappeared.
Africa is linguistically the least-known continent, according to the Atlas, which notes that out of the 1,400 or so local African languages, between 500 and 600 are on the decline, and 250 are under immediate threat of disappearing. In North America, very few Inuit Eskimo languages have survived the pressure from English and French. For several years now, Canada has been working to save these languages, along with 104 Amerindian tongues that survive. In the United States, less than 150 Indian languages have survived out of the several hundred that were spoken there before the arrival of Europeans.
In Central and South America, there is not as much language diversity as elsewhere because of “the extermination of entire peoples in eastern Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay,” UNESCO said. Many Indian languages are under pressure from Spanish and Portuguese.
Moribund or even extinct languages can be saved through determined policies, UNESCO said, citing the example of Japan, where Ainu – spoken by only eight people on the island of Hokkaido in the late 1980s – is being revived. Sometimes languages that have actually died have been “raised from the dead,” such as Cornish, in England, which became extinct in 1777 but has been revived in recent years, with nearly 1,000 people now speaking it as a second language.
“On International Mother Language Day, all languages are given equal recognition, for each is a unique response to the human condition and each is a living heritage we should cherish,” said UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura.