The International Year of Languages, 2008

On average, a language ceases to be spoken every two weeks. Within the space of a few generations, more than half of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world may disappear, and according to experts, 96% of languages are spoken by only 4% of the population.

With the slogan, “Languages matter”, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launched on Thursday, 21 February, the 2008 International Year of Languages at its Paris headquarters.

In its 16 May 2007 resolution 61/266, the General Assembly proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages, to promote unity in diversity and international understanding, through multilingualism.

The launch coincided with the International Mother Language Day, marked annually on this day, since 2000.

UNESCO, the lead agency coordinating activities to celebrate the year, is calling for urgent action to encourage and develop “language policies that enable each linguistic community to use its first language or mother tongue as widely and as often as possible, while mastering regional and international languages.”

Mr. Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO in a message urged governments, UN organizations, civil society organizations, educational institutions and professional associations, to increase their “activities to foster respect for, and the promotion and protection of all languages, particularly endangered languages in all individual and collective contexts.”

The Director-General said: “Far from being a field reserved for analysis by specialists, languages lie at the heart of all social, economic and cultural life,” drawing attention to the importance of languages in achieving set development goals, such as the MDGs.

The UN General Assembly, in proclaiming 2008 as the International Year of Language, said it recognized that “the United Nations pursues multilingualism as a means of promoting, protecting and preserving diversity of languages and cultures globally” and emphasized “the paramount importance of the equality of the Organization’s six official languages.”

The Assembly requested the Secretary-General “to ensure that all language services were given equal treatment and were provided with equally favourable working conditions and resources.”

Global Secretariat-wide activities to celebrate language diversity

Various offices and departments of the UN secretariat are holding a series of campaigns highlighting language activities of the UN secretariat-wide community.

The Learning Section’s Language and Communications Programme has developed several activities throughout the year to mark the celebrations. In March, a book sharing activity in the form of a multilingual book club was launched. Senior UN officials are encouraged to recommend a book in any of the six official languages.

Another activity is “Speaking tables”.  Twice every month, a UN official language is assigned to a table in the main cafeteria at UN Headquarters. Customers to the cafeteria are invited to join a table and practice the assigned language. As there are six official languages, six tables are filled with UN staff members practicing the Official Languages of the UN twice a month. This has been a very popular event. It is open only to UN Staff Members and affiliates.

There will also be an event during the year to collect used books from staff for sale to raise funds for a children's literacy fund.

Other activities include a Language Learning Wall of Honor, exhibitions of the best work of students from the UN Language and Communications Programmes; a Series of Films, which will have an interesting selection of international movies and documentaries; Lunchtime Guests, which will feature prominent writers, poets, linguists and academics; Calligraphers Show, during which Chinese and Arabic calligraphers will write people's names on cards, as well as a 2008 International Year of Languages Award.

The Radio and Television Section is also organizing various activities to highlight its rich language programming over the years.

Bearing in mind that information in local languages has the highest impact on local populations, the network of 63 United Nations Information Centres (UNICs) across the world have been undertaking various communication activities to highlight UN work in different mother tongues and international languages.

UNICs host web sites in five official (Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish) and 29 non-official languages (Armenian, Bahasa, Bangla, Belarusian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Kiswahili, Japanese, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovakian, Slovenian, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu and Uzbek). The development of web pages in local languages is a top priority for UNICs.