Thousands of languages face extinction, UN warns at start of International Year

21 February 2008

The International Year of Languages kicked off today with a warning from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that more than half the world’s 6,700 spoken languages are threatened with extinction and every two weeks on average one language disappears somewhere around the world.

In a message marking International Mother Language Day, which was also celebrated today, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura stressed the importance of all languages to everyday life.

“Far from being a field reserved for analysis by specialists, languages lie at the heart of all social, economic and cultural life,” Mr. Matsuura said, explaining that ‘Languages matter!’ is the UNESCO slogan for the International Year.

The agency held a series of events – including a round table, a seminar, several presentations and an information workshop – at its Paris headquarters to mark the Day and launch the International Year.

International Mother Language Day has been celebrated on 21 February each year since 2000, and this year UNESCO said it had placed special emphasis on international instruments and standards that encourage multilingualism.

The agency warned that when a language fades, so does a part of the world’s cultural tapestry, adding that globalization is placing many languages under ever greater threat. Today, experts estimate that 96 per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by only 4 per cent of the total population.

“Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression – valuable resources for ensuring a better future are also lost,” UNESCO said in a statement.

 

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