Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world's rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression — valuable resources for ensuring a better future — are also lost.
More than 50 per cent of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken in the world are likely to die out within a few generations, and 96 per cent of these languages are spoken by a mere 4 per cent of the world's population. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given pride of place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world.
Cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, the promotion of education for all and the development of knowledge societies are central to UNESCO's work. But they are not possible without broad and international commitment to promoting multilingualism and linguistic diversity, including the preservation of endangered languages.
International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by UNESCO's General Conference in November 1999. The International Day has been observed every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
In January 2006, UNESCO set up a strategic monitoring body (the Task Force on Languages and Multilingualism, chaired by the Director-General) and an operational monitoring structure (the network of focal points for languages) to ensure synergy among all sectors and services concerned by languages. Through this well-designed combination, strengthened and revivified from February 2008 by the creation of an Intersectoral platform on language and multilingualism (IPLM), the Organization is working internationally to promote the principles enshrined in or derived from standard-setting tools relating to languages and multilingualism, and locally to develop coherent national and regional language policies, in conformity with its mid-term strategy.
On 16 May 2007 General Assembly proclaimed 2008 International Year of Languages, pursuant to the resolution adopted by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization at its thirty-third session on 20 October 2005, and named the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to serve as the lead agency for the Year.
This initiative did not only increase awareness of language issues, but also mobilized partners and resources for supporting the implementation of strategies and policies in favour of language diversity and multilingualism in all parts of the world
The International Year of Languages comes at a time when linguistic diversity is increasingly threatened. Language is fundamental to communication of all kinds, and it is communication that makes change and development possible in human society. Using — or not using — certain languages today can open a door, or close it, for large segments of society in many parts of the world.
In the meantime, there is growing awareness that languages play a vital role in development, in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, but also in strengthening co-operation and attaining quality education for all, in building inclusive knowledge societies and preserving cultural heritage, and in mobilizing political will for applying the benefits of science and technology to sustainable development.