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UNESCO launches the World Atlas of Languages to celebrate and protect linguistic diversity


As the world prepares for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022-2032, UNESCO unveils the World Atlas of Languages (WAL), an unprecedented initiative to preserve, revitalize and promote global linguistic diversity and multilingualism as a unique heritage and treasure of humanity.

“The World Atlas of Languages provides a new approach to better understand linguistic diversity, and how languages can contribute to improving literacy, inclusion, access to public services, combating stigma and discrimination, and closing digital divides” said Tawfik Jelassi, Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information at UNESCO, in his opening statement at the launch event which was held at the Organization’s Headquarters on 18 November in Paris at the margins of UNESCO’s 41st General Conference.

The President of the General Conference of UNESCO and Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of the Delegation of Brazil to UNESCO, Santiago Irazabal Mourão highlighted the importance of languages: “Languages are about who we are and how we interact with each other. It is the foundation of our social lives. (…) We cannot fulfil the promises of the 2030 Agenda to promote quality education and make it a driver for sustainable development without supporting the use of local languages.”

Also speaking at the launch event, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Francisco Cali Tzay highlighted “the importance of the World Atlas of Languages to raise awareness on the loss of Indigenous languages” and its “contribution to the implementation of the Global Action Plan of the upcoming International Decade of Indigenous Languages, consisting in providing all stakeholders with an online tool and innovative methodology for the assessment of linguistic diversity around the world.” As stressed by the Special Rapporteur, “Indigenous languages play an essential role in defining indigenous relationship with Mother Earth, preserving Indigenous territory, transmitting Indigenous worldview, science, history, and culture, and eradicating hunger by maintaining the integrity of Indigenous food systems.”

Her Highness Princess Haifa Al Mogrin, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to UNESCO, congratulated UNESCO on the new tool, and welcomed the “joint cooperation to preserve, support and promote Indigenous languages towards building solid bridges of understanding between people, societies and nations.”

The World Atlas of Languages presents basic data on the existing 8,324 languages spoken or signed in the world, in use and not in use, as well as more detailed data documenting how 1,863 languages are used in various domains at the national level, enabling the construction of linguistic country profiles for over 80 countries. The platform featuring this rich dataset will open to the general public in February 2022.

As pointed out by Marielza Oliveira, UNESCO’s Director for Partnerships and Operational Programme Monitoring in the Communication and Information Sector, the World Atlas of Languages will constantly be updated with new language descriptors and data, under the UpData! initiative: “The launch is just a beginning, as the Atlas will evolve over time - just as the languages and their users themselves have evolved over centuries. In years to come, further appeals for collection and contribution with language data will be launched.”

The World Atlas of Languages is supported by the Government of Japan, the private sector partner Talkmate from the People’s Republic of China, and by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud Foundation.

UNESCO also released the Flagship Report of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019), a collection of good practices and results of this global initiative, implemented under the leadership of UNESCO. A set of key activities are presented, including major objectives, areas of intervention, thematic areas, the over 2,460 stakeholders involved, inspiring stories and categories of events carried out to mobilize stakeholders and resources for coordinated action to preserve, revitalize and promote these languages around the world.

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