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Communication and Information Activities

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Multilingualism in Cyberspace

Language constitutes the foundation of communication and is fundamental to cultural and historical heritage.
Basic Issues

Languages are an essential part of the cultural diversity of our planet. Languages and dialects are not only expressions of the human culture and the human mind, they are also the means by which we communicate with others and seek ways of explaining the world we live in. At the same time, languages are a very vulnerable part of our cultural heritage.

  • Language Facts
  • Language and Identity
  • Language in Danger
  • International Conventions
  • Language Facts

    UNESCO's "Atlas of Languages in danger of disappearing" estimates that there are around 6000 languages spoken worldwide today. Most of these languages do not enjoy majority status. It is estimated that more than half of the world's population communicates in only 8 languages: English and Mandarin Chinese, Hindi (with Urdu), Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Bengali and finally Portuguese (ranked by proportion). The situation among the languages varies widely, with more than 3000 languages now spoken by fewer than 10000 people. According to "The Ethnologue" 417 languages are nearly extinct.

    Language and Identity

    The preservation and promotion of linguistic diversity is important for the society as a whole and for the individual. Language is an essential part of what defines a culture or civilization. The identity of an individual person is defined by its social affiliation. The language used in his social environment, transmitted to him by social and linguistic interactions, forms his linguistic identity. Linguistic identity means the identification with a language and its speakers as well as the identification with linguistic varieties such as dialects or sociolects and their speakers. The social scientist George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) developed the relevant theoretical background by saying that people do not live only in a natural, but also in a symbolic environment. According to Mead, language is the most complicated symbol that one can aquire. This lead Mead to the conclusion that the genesis and the basis of identity, thinking and -consequently- language are of a societal nature.

    Language in Danger

    A language is considered as being endangered when it is not any longer learned by the children or at least by a large part of the children of a community. Then, the language is not any longer transferred by the elderly to the younger generation, and it will eventually disappear with the death of its last speakers.

    Even though a language has child speakers, it can become endangered when parts or individuals of a given speech community are transplanted into communities that use another language.

    Annexation, resettlement, and other political or military acts can have immediate linguistic effects. People may become refugees, and have to learn the language of their now homes. After a succesful military invasion, the indigenous population may have to learn the invader's language.

    Learning another language may be the only means of obtaining access to knowledge. This factor led to the universal use of Latin in the Middle Ages, and today motivates the international use of English.

    Very large numbers of people have migrated to find work and to improve their standard of living. This factor alone accounts for most of the linguistic diversity of the USA, and an increasing proportion of the bilingualism in present-day Europe.

    The ongoing destruction of environment, habitats and living space can well be followed by the extinction of languages, e.g. through mining, oil drilling, excessive tree felling, damming of rivers, warfare, etc. These actions lead to the relocation of the speakers of the local languages and may contribute to the loss of their linguistic and cultural identity.

    In bilingual or multilingual settings, the phenomenon of acculturation applies when the use of a dominant majority language is associated with social, cultural, political or economical advantages. In this case, parents of children in the "weaker" culture may encourage their children (and themselves) to use the language of the stronger culture rather than their own language. Soon enough, the young generation would loose the interest in the mother tongue and would not any longer speak the original language.

    Finally, political decisions on language issues may have a huge impact on preservation or disappearance of linguistic diversity in a society. A language policy can serve as a political instrument, designated either to build an integrated (or assimilated) monolingual society or to promote the co-existence of multiculturality and multilinguism what would enrich all engaged parties. A closer look at the language policies of some nations reveals a trend towards a single language, whereas the activities of South Africa and the Member States of the European Union promote the wealth and enrichment of linguistic diversity.

    Switching between languages, the alternative use of a foreign language or bilingualism must not be confused with the natural process of language change. This theory tells that, through daily use in interaction among its speakers, a language develops and re-news itself. The evolution may even result in the death of a language.

    International Conventions

    Over the past few years, the topic of languages in danger of disappearing has gained greater awareness among the scientific community, international organisations and increasingly among the public.

    This has been underlined by the enlargement of Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which now states that "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion..."

    In 1992, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

    In 1996, the World Conference on Linguistic Rights in Barcelona, Spain resulted in the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. This declaration has served as a point of enrichment for further conventions.

    At present, there is only one international legal instrument that exclusively addresses the issue of minority languages. The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is supervised by the Council of Europe and has been ratified by 16 countries in Europe.

    UNESCO has been taking several important steps to develop international policies and support actions in this field. In 2001, UNESCO's General Conference unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, which provides a solid conceptual framework for a range of actions that promotes cultural diversity and the preservation of endangered languages.
    Its objectives include:
    • Safeguarding the linguistic heritage of humanity and giving support to expression, creation and dissemination in the greatest possible number of languages;

    • Encouraging linguistic diversity - while respecting the mother tongue - at all levels of education;

    • Promoting linguistic diversity in cyberspace.
    In response to this declaration, the UN General Assembly stated in February 2002 that it "pursues multilingualism as a means of promoting, protecting and preserving diversity of languages and cultures globally", and recognized that multilingualism "promotes unity in diversity and international understanding."

    Even more recently in October 2003, UNESCO's member states unanimously adopted the "Recommendation concerning the Promotion and Use of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace", which seeks to support equitable and affordable access to information and to promote the development of multicultural knowledge societies.