Promotion and Preservation of Languages

Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalisation 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.

In this context, it is urgent to take action to promote multilingualism, in other words to encourage the development of coherent regional and national language policies which give opportunity for the appropriate and harmonious use of languages in a given community and country. Such policies promote measures allowing each speaker community to use its mother tongue in private and public domains of language use and enabling the speakers to learn and use additional languages: local, national and international. Mother-tongue speakers of national or international languages should be encouraged to learn and use other languages of the country and regional and international languages.

As part of this commitment for multilingualism, the General Assembly of the UN has proclaimed 2008 to be the International Year of Languages, and named UNESCO as the lead agency.

The 2002 edition of the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing, published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), reported that half of the 6,000 or so languages spoken in the world are endangered, and with them an irreplaceable dimension of our knowledge and understanding of human thought. The process whereby languages are disappearing is a continual one and not a new phenomenon. However, the past 30 years or so have seen a dramatic increase in the disappearance rate of languages.

The causes of this phenomenon are multiple and complex. People tend to abandon their native tongues either because they belong to small groups immersed in different or unfriendly cultural and linguistic environments, or because they come into contact with an invasive or economically stronger culture. In such situations, adults, in full disregard of their own language, encourage children to learn the language of the dominant culture, not only to become competitive in the labour market but also to acquire social status.

By adopting the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity in 2001, the General Conference reaffirmed the need for urgent action to promote linguistic and cultural diversity, notably through safeguarding the linguistic heritage, fostering the learning of several languages from the youngest age and promoting linguistic diversity in cyberspace.

Safeguarding and Defending Indigenous Languages

Safeguarding and defending their indigenous languages is a people’s fundamental right. By adopting Economic and Social Council resolution 2000/222, on the establishment of a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a subsidiary body of the Council, the United Nations and its Member States pledged to resolve the problems facing indigenous people, particularly with regard to the safeguarding of languages and cultures. The International Mother Language Day is celebrated on 21 February each year in order to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

Many United Nations bodies such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and International Labour Organization (ILO) reported to the permanent body in May 2006. It was noted that an increasing amount of training is conducted in indigenous languages, with many publications aimed at upholding the rights of indigenous people produced in these languages. Similarly, the Millennium Development Goals were translated into several languages, just as ILO translated its Convention (No. 169) concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries into several languages, including indigenous languages, and is also planning on translating various teaching aids into these languages. In the context of the Global Environment Facility small grants programme, UNDP held training sessions in indigenous languages, particularly in Latin America.

There are still many obstacles to the use and safeguarding of indigenous languages and cultures, as noted in the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people (A/60/358). In this context, UNESCO highlights the need to develop curricula, adapted in terms of language and cultural aspects, in which the relevant history, values, languages and oral traditions are acknowledged, respected and encouraged.

The Statistics Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs is working closely with the Permanent Forum in order to influence national census-taking practice to obtain data on indigenous people, particularly concerning the use and preservation of their languages. At the end of 2005 this Department published data on national and ethnic groups on its website. The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity uses the Ethnologue database in order to also gather data on linguistic diversity and the number of speakers of indigenous languages. Let us recall that in 2001, UNESCO published the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing.

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has a crucial role to play. It must strive to help its 16 members ensure that the concerns of indigenous people regarding languages are taken into account more systematically in all United Nations activities.