The year 2008 has been proclaimed International Year of Languages by the United Nations general assembly. In a message issued on November 5, 2007, UNESCO director general Koïchiro Matsuura remarked that UNESCO, which has been entrusted with coordinating activities to mark the occasion, “is determined to fulfill its role as lead agency.”
Mr. Matsuura went on to note that his organization is fully aware of the crucial importance of languages when set against the many challenges facing humanity over the next few decades. He believes that languages are, among other things, essential to the identity of groups and individuals and to their peaceful coexistence. “They constitute a strategic factor of progress toward sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between global and local context,” he said.
The director general added that cultural diversity is also closely linked to linguistic diversity, as indicated in the 2001 UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity and action plan, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
Within a few generations, over 50% of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world may disappear, Mr. Matsuura recalled. After stressing the need for action, he noted that UNESCO invites governments, United Nations organizations, civil society organizations, educational institutions, professional associations, and all other stakeholders to foster respect for and promote and protect all languages, particularly endangered ones, in all individual and collective contexts. “Whether it be through initiatives in the fields of education, cyberspace, or literature; be it through projects to safeguard endangered languages, promote languages as tools for social integration, or explore the relationship between languages and the economy, indigenous knowledge, or creation, it is important that the idea that “languages matter!” be promoted everywhere,” declared Mr. Matsuura.
The director general added that February 21, 2008—the ninth International Mother Language Day—“will have a special significance and provide a particularly appropriate deadline for the introduction of initiatives to promote languages. Our common goal is to ensure that the importance of linguistic diversity and multilingualism in educational, administrative, and legal systems; cultural expressions; and the media, cyberspace, and trade, is recognized at the national, regional, and international levels. The International Year of Languages 2008 will provide a unique opportunity to make decisive progress towards achieving these goals,” concluded Mr. Matsuura.