UNESCO Director-General's Message to mark International Mother Language Day, 21 February 2004
This is the fifth year in a row that we have observed International Mother Language Day on 21 February. In this way we celebrate nearly 6,000 languages, all creations of human genius, each expressing in a unique way a vision of the world, a coherent system of values and meaning. In fact, languages represent a true reflection of humanity’s cultural diversity.
Ensuring that these languages, 95% of which are spoken by only 4% of the world’s population, can continue use alongside the major international languages of communication is a genuine challenge for some 200 countries worldwide.
It is essential, however, not only on grounds of cultural diversity but also in support of the right to a quality education for all, that the use of mother languages is fostered in school systems from infancy. The most recent studies show clearly that the teaching of the mother language together with an official national language enables children to obtain better school results and stimulates their cognitive development and their ability to study. This is the spirit of the sixth goal set in Dakar at the World Education Forum, which refers to the need to improve all aspects of the quality of education so that recognized and measurable outcomes are achieved by all.
I am pleased that the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, adopted some months ago by the General Conference, makes explicit reference to languages as vehicles of the intangible cultural heritage. I hope that this convention will contribute, in its way, to the safeguarding of linguistic diversity, which is a matter of great urgency in view of the pace at which languages are disappearing (two per month on average). I am thinking in particular of indigenous populations for whom the defence of the mother language remains a crucial right ensuring respect for their identity and the safeguarding of their heritage. The teaching of languages, and in particular mother languages, is thus becoming more important than ever in a world that must be able to communicate at the global level but which must also know how to preserve for every individual the option of speaking his or her own language as a unique form of expression throughout life.
Every year, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day, documents are drawn up to encourage the Member States and Associate Members to celebrate the Day appropriately. This year saw the publication of a brochure on the contributions by Member States to the celebration of the Day in previous years: it is available to all those who wish to draw upon their successes. I am delighted to see so many testimonies to the interest that this Day generates in all countries, and it is my hope that its celebration in 2004 will bring about an even greater mobilization.