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3. Language Endangerment in the News

International Mother Language Day Inaugurated by UNESCO

Paris, February 21 {No.2000-14} - International Mother Language Day, proclaimed by UNESCO's General Conference in November 1999, was celebrated for the first time today with a ceremony at Organization Headquarters.

The event was opened by UNESCO Director-General Kochiro Matsuura who stressed that "by deciding to celebrate mother tongues, UNESCO's Member States wished to recall that languages are not only an essential part of humanity's cultural heritage, but the irreducible expression of human creativity and of its great diversity."

Highlighting the fact that close to 6000 languages are estimated to be spoken in today's world, Mr Matsuura said: "They testify to humanity's astounding ability to create tools of communication, to its perception and reflection. They are the mirror of the souls of the societies in which they are born and they reflect the history of their contacts. In this sense, it could be said that all languages are cross-bred."

He added: "Favouring the promotion of linguistic diversity and the development of multilingual education from an early age helps preserve cultural diversity and the conditions for international understanding, tolerance and mutual respect."

Vigdis Finnbogadottir, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Languages and former President of Iceland, took part in the first celebration of International Mother Language Day. She highlighted the value of languages both as means of communication and as expressions of culture and identity. Ms Finnbogadottir qualified languages as "humanity's most precious and fragile treasures."

In a message read at the ceremony, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed support for International Mother Language Day which, he said, raises awareness among all peoples regarding the value of languages. Reaffirming the capital importance of preserving language diversity, he called for increased efforts to conserve languages as a shared heritage of humanity.

For more information:

The European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages adds: In many documents and resolutions the European institutions have stressed the equality and dignity of all languages. However, the differences between languages cannot be ignored. Just take as an example Cornish with around 1000 speakers in total, and German, one of the most populous languages within the European Union. Both — in some contexts — can be considered minority languages.

To stay abreast of the different situation of languages and give all of them their rights, EBLUL started during the European Year of Languages 2001 a petition for minority languages. The aim of the petition was to support the common goal of safeguarding Europe's over 40 million minority language speakers. Recently, a set of 23,573 signatures was handed over to the European Commissioner for Education and Culture Viviane Reding.

On this occasion Ms Reding congratulated EBLUL on its initiative and stressed once more that the Commission will foster the integration of lesser-used languages within other action programmes and projects. “There are no legal or formal obstacles to regional or minority languages’ participation in such programmes,” Reding explains. “It is important that civil servants in the national agencies dealing with such programmes are aware of the minority languages.”

Local languages under threat in Africa

United Nations: Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN)
Addis Ababa, 21 February 2002

Almost half the languages spoken in the world are under threat, with Africa one of the hardest-hit continents, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Africa - linguistically the least known continent - is one of most affected, where 250 languages could be lost for ever. And of the 1,400 languages - used by the continent's 700 million-strong population - at least 500 are on the decline.

According to UNESCO, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Sudan face the most serious problems, and have been designated "crisis areas". "They are crisis areas which have the most moribund or seriously endangered tongues," a spokesman for UNESCO said in a statement released in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Thursday.

UNESCO argues that some African countries encourage major languages like Swahili, or even colonial languages like French and English, which then threaten local tongues. A community's language is defined by experts to be endangered when at least 30 percent of its children no longer speak it.

Often economic and social factors can threaten local languages as people leave their communities to look for work. Their environments can also be threatened, so villagers and their language are dispersed. Linguists argue that a native language helps preserve the culture of communities, as well as providing the building blocks of life.

"At least 3,000 tongues are endangered, seriously endangered or dying in many parts of the world," the UNESCO spokesman stressed. "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."

"But an endangered, moribund or even extinct language can be saved through a determined language policy," he added. "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."

UNESCO has released an atlas highlighting the "World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing". The maps have been launched to coincide with International Mother Language Day - marked on 21 February.

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Copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2002

EBLUL presents “Package for Linguistic Diversity” as contribution to the Convention

Strasbourg, 14.03.02
Today the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages (EBLUL) presented the “Package for Linguistic Diversity” in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The package is EBLUL”s contribution to the Convention on the Future of the European Union.

Linguistic and cultural diversity gets more and more important in the light of the enlargement of the European Union. At the same time there is a tendency of the European states not to increase the power of the Union. Keeping these developments in mind, EBLUL has together with a high level group of experts elaborated three proposals for a linguistically diverse future of the European Union. These proposals would give the EU the opportunity to deal with this cultural and linguistic variety, while maintaining the legislative competence within the Member States.

The proposals were elaborated at a meeting of the High Level Group of Experts convened by EBLUL in Bilbao two weeks ago. The aim behind this initiative was to come up with several suggestions for promoting linguistic diversity, including lesser-used languages, in the new EU-Treaties. Among the different high-class experts attending the meeting, were also experts of the UN, the OSCE and the Council of Europe.

The main purpose of the three proposals made at the meeting is to give substance to Article 22 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union stating that “The EU shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity”.

Summarised the three proposals in the Package for Linguistic Diversity are:
1. Including Linguistic Diversity in the New EU Treaty
2. Amending Article 13 EC on Non-discrimination
3. Introducing Qualified Majority Voting in Art. 151 EC on Cultural Policies

For the complete text and explanations of the Package for Linguistic Diversity see

EBLUL welcomes UNESCO’s co-operation with Discovery Channel to raise awareness of endangered languages

Brussels, 18 April 2002

The European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages (EBLUL) welcomes UNESCO’s initiative to co-operate with the Discovery Channel to generate awareness of endangered languages and cultural heritage. The programme, which will be broadcasted in 154 countries, will include 'vignettes, grassroots outreach and on-air promotions to bring little known and dying languages to millions of people'.

According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing, even in Europe, 50 languages are under threat. The safeguarding of all these languages is very important for the European citizens, stresses the President of EBLUL, Bojan Brezigar. ‘Europeans have accepted the idea of globalisation and specifically through the European integration process in economy, in sciences and generally in life, under the condition that peculiarities and specifically cultural and linguistic diversity can be preserved’, said Brezigar on the World Congress on Language Policies, Linguapax, held recently in Barcelona.

EBLUL especially appreciates that two institutions with global scope such as UNESCO and the Discovery Channel are uniting their strength to promote pluralism. ‘Promotion of cultural and linguistic diversity through initiatives like this humanizes the process of globalisation’ says Markus Warasin, Secretary General of EBLUL. All linguistic communities - whether big or small - must have equal opportunities to benefit from cultural and linguistic diversity...’

ABC News story on Dying Languages

On April 8, ABC News reporter Michael S. James filed a long and well-researched story on language endangerment. The internet version (with links to other stories, as well as to sound files) can be found at:

Entitled "Tongue-Ties: Linguists and Native Speakers Fight to Preserve Dying Languages," James' story focuses on several specific languages from around the world. Among the experts interviewed are Peter Austin, Aaron Broadwell, Doug Whalen, Steven Bird, Helen Dry, and Inee Yang Slaughter.

Montana languagessb(at) 15 Apr 2002:

The text of an excellent media story on endangered languages in Montana ("Revitalizing native tongues", by Karen Ivanova, Great Falls Tribune, April 14) can be accessed online at:

Spasm of Interest in the UK Press

The cost of losing too many tongues: 4 pages of articles in The Times Higher 24 May 2002

The Englishing of the Earth: cover story in the Times (T2 Section) 29 May 2002

Whose culture are we talking about? Essay in the New Statesman 3 June 2002

These articles, which all appeared within a couple of weeks, are all basically sympathetic to the continued vigour of language diversity in the world generally, and in Britain (and its businesses and calssrooms) specifically. Language Endangerment Day at the University of Manchester also got good coverage on page 13 of The Guardian of May 25. (The event is briefly reported on page 17 below.)

The Times Higher section was led by an article from Andrew Dalby (author of Language in Danger (Penguin)), emphasizing the cultural value of bilingualism, and for once rubbishing the ‘Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax’ (the proverbial status of all those words for snow) in a popular-ish forum. It also included an article by Michael Corballis offering the idea that the origins of language might be best seen in vocal gesturing (prefiguring his new book From Hand to Mouth: the Origins of Language Princeton UP), Andrew Robinson on the decipherment of lost scripts, and Chris Bunting tells the story of the rediscovery of the last speakers of the N| u language in 1997—which played a major part in a successful Bushman land claim in 1999. Elsie Vaalbooi was the first of the speakers found , herself already over 100 years old. Nigel Crawhall, Tony Traill and Hugh Brody were among the linguists involved.

The other two articles, by Richard Morrison in the Times, and Deborah Cameron in the New Statesman, are more generic pieces, taking a wry view of the likely losses that would be involved in a global “triumph of English”... or of Englishes, and the mute assumption of monolingualism that seems to animate much of UK government policy. Contents.