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Multilingualism in Cyberspace

Language constitutes the foundation of communication and is fundamental to cultural and historical heritage.

Atlas on Endangered Languages

The 'Atlas on-line' will serve as an ever-evolving electronic extension to the print publication, under Initiative B@bel.
The ‘Atlas on-line’ main objectives are:
  • Safeguarding languages in danger of disappearing in order to contribute to the preservation of the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity;

  • Sharing knowledge on endangered languages in cyberspace through the use of information and communication technologies (ICT);

  • Promoting public awareness and international debate concerning languages in danger of disappearing through the development of an interactive on-line space;

  • Fostering intellectual cooperation with local, regional, national and international partners in order to combine efforts to promote and preserve the world’s endangered languages.
Why preserve language diversity?

According to our estimate there are about 6,000 languages spoken in the world today, most of them in several dialects. We know of many languages that are no longer spoken, in other words, that have become extinct and are dead. Only a few of those, such as Latin, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit, have been kept alive artificially. However, many languages have disappeared without being known to us in any great detail, with only some fragmentary materials in them at our disposal to give us some idea as to what those languages were like. Others have disappeared without even the scanty information about their nature being available to us; only their names are known from historical records. Many other languages have disappeared without our knowing anything of or about them.

Each language reflects a unique world-view and culture complex, mirroring the manner in which a speech community has resolved its problems in dealing with the world, and has formulated its thinking, its system of philosophy and understanding of the world around it. In this, each language is the means of expression of the intangible cultural heritage of a people, and it remains a reflection of this culture for some time even after the culture which underlies it decays and crumbles, often under the impact of an intrusive, powerful, usually metropolitan, different culture. However, with the death and disappearance of such a language, an irreplaceable unit in our knowledge and understanding of human thought and world-view is lost forever.

The dying and disappearance of languages have been going on for thousands of years as a natural event in human society but at a slow rate. This trend sometimes increased locally for a short period of time, for instance when a powerful conquering group attacked and killed off certain small community speaking a variety of different languages.

However, the past three hundred years have seen a dramatic increase in the death and disappearance of languages leading to the situation today in which 3,000 or more languages that are still spoken are endangered, seriously endangered or dying, with many other still viable languages already showing signs of being potentially endangered and soon entering in the phase where they will be endangered and will face disappearance.

How do languages become endangered?

Basically, the language of any community that is no longer learned by children, or at least by a large part of the children community of that community (at least 30 per cent), should be regarded as ‘endangered’ or ‘potentially endangered’. But a language can become ‘endangered’ for other reasons even if it has child speakers. The main situations in which a language becomes ‘endangered’ and threatens to disappear can be synthesising as following:
  • The forceful splitting up and transplanting of the speech community that speaks a given language, putting small groups or even only individuals of the speech community into communities that use another language;

  • The face-to-face contact between a particular speech community and a more aggressive culture, who speak another, usually metropolitan, language;

  • The actions of people of a dominant culture that lead to the destruction of the environment, habitat and livelihood of the speakers of local languages;

  • The natural catastrophes such as volcanic eruptions, floods, wildfires, new devastating diseases and epidemics resulting from contacts between speaker of local languages and those of a dominant culture, where the former have no resistance to diseases.
In the discussion of language endangerment, an important factor is the number of speakers of a given language. Languages spoken by a large group are less vulnerable to the danger of disappearing than others. However, the problem here is that the question of large or small numbers of speakers is quite relative and is determinated by the number of speakers of surrounding languages who are culturally aggressive.

Preventing language disappearance

There are many examples of the reasons that we have given above for language endangerment. The paradox is that the way to prevent a language from becoming ‘endangered’ would be to promote bi- or multi-lingualism, which is already the norm in many parts of the world. Bi- and multi- lingualism make it possible for speakers of languages under threat from languages spoken by bearers of aggressive cultures and civilizations to acquire a good knowledge of the latter for economic and other reasons, while maintaining a good knowledge of their original languages. This allows them to preserve their cultural and traditional identity and maintain their own self-respect and self-esteem. Even if bi- and multi- lingualism are the most advantageous quality any person can possess, they are not encouraged in most of the major cultures, the speakers of whose languages regard monolingualism as the norm and the preferred state for human language.

The urgent world situation concerning languages in danger of disappearing prompted UNESCO to focus its attention on the protection and preservation of endangered languages. In this sense, one of the Organization’s responses is the implementation of this interactive online extension to the ‘Atlas of languages in danger of disappearing’ within the framework of the UNESCO’s ‘Initiative B@bel’ project.

In its first phase, the ‘Atlas on-line’ includes only content about seriously endangered and moribund languages of Africa. This continent, designated as an UN-wide priority, constitutes the least known region from a linguistic point of view and it has the highest number of languages in danger of rapid disappearance, amongst its approximately 1400 languages, at least 250 are threatened of disappearance and 500 to 600 on the decline. In further phases, the ‘Atlas on-line will also include content concerning other regions of the world.

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