Linguistic diversity : 3,000 languages in dangerParis - About half of the 6,000 or so languages spoken in the world are under threat.
Over the past three centuries, languages have died out and disappeared at a dramatic and steadily increasing pace, especially in the Americas and Australia. Today at least 3,000 tongues are endangered, seriously endangered or dying in many parts of the world.
Details can be found in the second edition of the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing(*), which is much more detailed than the first, and will be presented on February 21, which is International Mother Language Day. The 14 maps in colour and 24 pages of commentary in the Atlas show the “crisis areas” where linguistic diversity is most threatened. Experts generally consider a community’s language to be “endangered” when at least 30 per cent of its children no longer learn it.
“Of the languages that are spoken in the world, the most significant for our early emotional and cognitive development is that through which we first learn to name our personal universe and by means of which we begin to achieve a common understanding with our parents and the broader community or friends and school. It is the language of childhood, of intimate family experience and of our early social relations,” says UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura, in a message to mark International Mother Language Day. “On International Mother Language Day, all languages are given equal recognition, for each is a unique response to the human condition and each is a living heritage we should cherish.”
The Atlas says about 50 European languages are in danger. Some, like various Saami (Lappish) tongues, spoken in Scandinavia and northern Russia, are regarded as seriously endangered or moribund. France has 14 that are seriously endangered. In Siberia, in the Russian Federation, nearly all the 40 or so local languages are disappearing. In Europe, minority languages have been the target of repressive policies, though they have recently found advocates. Only a few countries, such as Norway and Switzerland, have encouraged multilingualism for any length of time.
In Asia, the situation is uncertain in many parts of China. The Atlas says the pressure from Chinese is especially strong in the northeast and northwest, western Xinjiang and the far south province of Yunnan. By contrast, on the Indian sub-continent, where there is extensive and well-catalogued linguistic diversity, most languages have remained alive thanks to bilingual or multilingual government policies. Only a few tongues are disappearing, mainly in the Himalayas and the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia and Afghanistan. In the Andaman Islands (in the Gulf of Bengal), there are only a few dozen people left who speak Önge and Shompen.
The Pacific region - which includes Japan, Taiwan (China), the Philippines, Insular Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Micronesia, Polynesia and Australia - contains more than 2,000 living languages, a third of the world total. Papua New Guinea alone counts at least 820, a world record for linguistic density. The Atlas says the region’s languages are generally alive and well. But Australia, New Caledonia and Taiwan are three crisis areas, it says. Of the 23 local languages in Taiwan, 14 are yielding to the pressures of Chinese. In New Caledonia, French has had a “devastating influence” and two thirds of the 60,000 indigenous people there have forgotten their mother tongue. In Australia, where Aborigines were forbidden to speak their 400 or so languages until the 1970s, a record number have recently disappeared or are in danger. Only about 25 Aboriginal languages are still commonly spoken.
Africa is linguistically the least-known continent. Many of its governments encourage the use of the major African languages, such as Swahili (in East Africa) or even the colonial languages. The Atlas says that out of the 1,400 or so local languages, between 500 and 600 are on the decline, and 250 are under immediate threat of disappearing. Nigeria and East Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Sudan) are the two crisis areas which have the most moribund or seriously endangered tongues.
In North America, very few Inuit Eskimo languages in the Arctic have survived the pressure from English and French. For several years now, Canada has been working to save these languages, along with 104 Amerindian tongues that survive (19 moribund and 28 seriously endangered). In the United States, less than 150 Indian languages have survived out of the several hundred that were spoken there before the arrival of the Europeans. All are endangered and many are moribund. Discrimination against these languages lessened in the 1970s, but the “backlash of conservatism and the strengthening of the ‘English-only’ policies in the 1980s has exacerbated the ongoing extinction of Amerindian languages,” the Atlas says.
In Central and South America, there is not as much language diversity as elsewhere because of the extermination of entire peoples in eastern Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Many Indian languages are under pressure from Spanish and Portuguese. In Mexico, for example, 14 local languages are seriously endangered or moribund. A large number of South America’s 375 or so surviving languages are also threatened or moribund.
Many things can lead to people abandoning their native tongues, the Atlas explains. One is the break-up or transplanting of a community, when individuals or small groups find themselves immersed in a different cultural and linguistic environment, which soon stifles their native language. A tongue can also disappear when its users come into contact with a more aggressive or economically-stronger culture. Adults encourage their children to learn the language of the dominant culture, especially as a means to get a job. Some minorities and their languages come under attack from groups of people who destroy their environment to extract minerals, timber and oil from it. The situation is worse when the authorities systematically discourage the use of local languages in schools, local government and the media.
But an endangered, moribund or even extinct language can be saved through a determined language policy. In Japan for example, only eight people spoke Ainu on the island of Hokkaido in the late 1980s, but today it is being revived after years of ostracism and decline. An Ainu museum has been opened there and the language is being taught to young people, who are rediscovering it. Sometimes languages that have actually died out have been “raised from the dead,” such as Cornish, in England, which became extinct in 1777 but has been revived in recent years, with nearly 1,000 people now speaking it as a second language.
International Mother Language Day will be marked at UNESCO in Paris on February 21 (4p.m.) with a meeting attended by prominent linguists and other personalities. Special tribute will be paid to the editor of the Atlas, Professor Stephen Wurm, who recently died. An Australian linguist of Hungarian origin, he spoke about 50 languages.
UNESCO, which encourages multilingualism, has celebrated International Mother Language Day since 2000. It is presently doing studies of groups of languages that are especially endangered, such as a language in the eastern part of the island of Espiritu Santo, in Vanuatu; the languages of South Selkup, in Siberia; the Austronesian tongues of Eastern Timor; the Lisa language in Thailand ; and the Wanyi Aboriginal language in Australia, long thought to be extinct until two speakers of it were recently discovered. UNESCO also plans to set up a monitoring system that will warn of when an endangered language is threatened with extinction.
UNESCO’s action in the field of languages is part of its efforts to protect the world’s oral and intangible heritage, including traditional popular music, dances, festivals, customs,traditional knowledge, oral traditions and local languages. The Organization, which adopted the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity on November 2, 2001 at its last General Conference, encourages the international community to take steps to protect intangible heritage, including languages, in the same way natural and cultural treasures of tangible heritage are protected.
Contact: Sophie Boukhari, Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section,
tel: (33 1) 45 68 46 96
(*) For the moment, the second edition is only available in English.