» A world without words? - Celebrating International Mother Language Day
20.02.2012 - UNESCOPRESS

A world without words? - Celebrating International Mother Language Day

© Xinhua - A young student learning Tibetan language in a primary school in the District of Dagze, in the Tibet Autonomous Region

Have you ever heard of kalkoti? An endangered language identified in 2011 by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, it is spoken by only around 4000 people in a village on the north-western border of Pakistan. It is estimated that nearly half of the approximately 6,000 languages spoken in the world could die out by the end of the century, with 96 percent of these languages spoken by a mere 4 percent of the world’s population. "Languages are who we are. By protecting them, we protect ourselves", - said UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova in her message on the occasion of the International Day.

Linguistic and cultural diversity are of strategic importance for people around the world in strengthening the unity and cohesion of societies. To recognize the importance of linguistic diversity, the UNESCO General Conference proclaimed International Mother Language Day (IMLD) in November 1999.  The International day has since been observed every year throughout the world on 21 February to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingual education. It aims to help develop better awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

"Multilingualism is our ally in ensuring quality education for all, in promoting inclusion and in combating discrimination. Building genuine dialogue must start with respect for languages. […] Linguistic diversity is our common heritage, and it is fragile. […] Multilingualism is a living resource – let us use it for the benefit of all," said UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova.

There is a growing awareness that languages play a vital role in development, in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, but also in strengthening cooperation, building inclusive knowledge societies, preserving cultural heritage and providing quality education for all. This year’s celebration is dedicated to multilingualism for inclusive education: "Learning in a language they can understand is vital for children to enjoy their right to quality education. Mother Tongue and Multilingual Education are key to reducing discrimination, promoting inclusion and improving learning outcomes for all".

UNESCO is working every day to protect linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote equality, development and social inclusion.  In the Republic of Korea, following the inclusion of the jeju in the critically endangered group of UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, in 2010, several projects are helping inhabitants of the Jeju island preserve the vitality and long-term survival of the jeju language. In the Solomon Islands, UNESCO is helping to create an environmental encyclopedia in the local Marovo language, thereby preserving the island’s language and knowledge and revitalizing local indigenous communities. In Nicaragua, UNESCO’s Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) programme is working with the indigenous Mayangna people of the BOSAWAS Biosphere Reserve to reinforce the transmission of Mayangna language, knowledge and culture. With support from Norway, UNESCO published a 2-volume book in the Mayangna language based on their indigenous knowledge of the natural world. Today, a Mayangna team is working with the Ministry of Education to develop pilot teacher manuals and student workbooks that are being tested in rural classrooms across the BOSAWAS Biosphere Reserve.  

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