The world's top experts in endangered languages meet at UNESCO

Paris – As the linguistic diversity of the planet shrinks at an unprecedented rate, to the point that most of the world's languages may be replaced by a few dominant languages by the end of the 21st century, the top experts in this field, from the scientific community and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are to meet at UNESCO from March 10 to 12. 

"Safeguarding of Endangered Languages" is the title of the International Expert Meeting on the UNESCO programme that will seek to identify the means to combat the phenomenon of linguistic decline and to establish UNESCO's specific role in the actions to be taken.

The meeting will be opened by UNESCO Director-General Ko´chiro Matsuura, who says that "the preservation of languages, which are a vector of humanity’s intangible heritage, is a priority for the Organization." He adds: "As the guardian of cultural diversity, UNESCO must reinforce its action to encourage governments to fight against the decline of thousands of languages. This in no way means weakening dominant languages, but rather to build truly multicultural societies in which nobody feels excluded."

The Director-General's speech will be followed by the screening of nine short films produced by Discovery Communications Inc. in partnership with UNESCO and the UN Works programme. These short films, which highlight the stories of speakers of endangered languages, were shot in Scotland, Sweden, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Argentina and India, and were distributed during International Mother Language Day on February 21.

Some 40 high-level linguists will be present at the March 10-12 meeting, including Michael Krauss (United States), Herbert Chimhundu (Zimbabwe), Margarita Lukina (Russia), Sun Hongkai (China), Lachman Khubchandani (India), Eithne Carlin (The Netherlands), Tapani Salminen (Finland), Joseph Palacio (Belize), Bruna Franchetto (Brazil) and David Crystal (United Kingdom), who will open the debates with a speech entitled, "Crossing the Great Divide: Language Endangerment and Public Awareness".

Vigdis Finnbogadottir, former President to Iceland and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Languages, as well as representatives of NGOs such as Terralingua, SIL International and the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages (EBLUL), among others, will also attend.

"About 97% of the world’s people speak about 4% of the world’s languages; and conversely, about 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by about 3% of the world’s people. Most of the world’s language heterogeneity, then, is under the stewardship of a very small number of people; at least 50% of the world’s nearly six thousand languages are losing speakers. Even languages with many thousands of speakers are no longer being acquired by children. We estimate that about 90% of the world’s languages may be replaced by dominant languages by the end of the 21st century."
This evaluation is from the UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages, made up of a dozen specialists who wrote the working document for the meeting entitled "Language Vitality and Endangerment". The participants will give updates on the state of linguistic research, linguistic diversity in different regions of the world, and solutions on how to fight the decline of many languages.

They will propose courses of action that could underpin UNESCO's future programme aimed at safeguarding endangered languages. As an organization committed to protecting cultural diversity and the intangible heritage of humanity, UNESCO can play a key role in encouraging and helping member states to preserve and revitalize languages under threat, should the communities concerned so wish.

According to the preliminary proposals from the Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages, five types of measures can contribute to this goal: training teachers and produce teaching materials; establish local language research centres; implement linguistic policies promoting diversity; develop language courses; and improve the living conditions of communities speaking endangered languages.

For security reasons, journalists wishing to attend must be accredited by the
Press Service.
Tel: +33 (0) 1 45 68 17 48

Source Media Advisory No. 2003-18
Publication Date 06 Mar 2003

ę 2004 - UNESCO