Towards World Atlas of Languages

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07 July 2016

Joint Partnership of UNESCO and Talkmate

8 July 2016, Beijing, People’s Republic of China

UNESCO and Talkmate host a launch event to celebrate the beginning of a new and exciting partnership on the development of the World Atlas of Languages. The joint partnership aims at developing innovative and scalable ICT-supported model to access data on linguistic diversity around the world, encourage collaboration among different stakeholders and raise awareness on the importance of linguistic diversity and multilingualism for sustainable development.

Building on the existing UNESCO’s Atlas of Languages in Danger, a new online collaborative platform “World Atlas of Languages” will provide a wide range of technical and collaborative facilities to different stakeholders to access and share own data on linguistic diversity, information about good practices, existing language teaching and learning solutions, and host user-generated content and discussions. 

This work will be done bearing in mind that language has the capacity to reconcile the ideas and values of people from diverse cultural, social, economic, religious and professional backgrounds. It is a key contributor to dialogue, reconciliation, tolerance and peace, as well as matters for sustainable development.

The question of language revitalization, maintenance and promotion is complex and multilayered. Many language revitalization efforts were taken by the national and local authorities around the world to provide support to the lesser used language communities. Numerous language documentation initiatives were launched by academia to document language and relevant resources as well as support speaker communities with new language tools.

Yet, much more should be done. The UNESCO Atlas of Languages in Danger includes data from nearly 2,728 out of some 6,500 languages in the world. Documentation of language is not easy as the data provided by different stakeholders is not accurate and reliable, varies from source to source regarding those languages which were not yet properly documented or on which information is not shared among its bearers.

Moreover, the situation of languages varies in different countries, therefore efforts are required for their revitalization, maintenance and promotion require focused and adapted solutions. Even those languages that are considered to be safe and with large number of speakers in some countries, might face challenges in maintenance by its speakers in other countries and regions. Therefore, information about world languages is needed to formulate evidence-based policies, develop new tools and resources by public and private organizations and provide an adequate response to specific needs of all citizens.

UNESCO Atlas of Languages in Danger will be used for the development of the World Atlas of Languages. The data so far collected by UNESCO provides a solid ground for a number of important conclusions.

 

No less than 40 % of known languages are extinct or endangered

Figure 1. Distribution of mapped by UNESCO world languages by vitality status
(UNESCO Atlas of Languages in Danger, 2016)

The rate of language endangerment and disappearance has increased significantly over the past decades due to rapid social, political and economic transformations in the world.

Disappearing language is a cause for serious concern that no less than 40% of some 6700 languages spoken nowadays are in danger of disappearing, according to the UNESCO Atlas of Languages in Danger (see Figure 1. Distribution of mapped by UNESCO world languages by vitality status).

This represents a minimum number, given numerous languages without adequate data.

 

Language endangerment is primarily an issue and challenge of languages with few speakers

Figure 2. Extinct or endangered languages by categories of number of speakers
(UNESCO Atlas of Languages in Danger, 2016)

Languages communities, particularly those with less than 10,000 speakers, require special attention as they constitute a biggest part of the languages in danger (see Figure no 2. Extinct or endangered languages by categories of number of speakers).

In addition to the 244 languages that have become extinct since 1950, some 180 languages suffer from a lack of data on the number of their speakers.

Of the 2,304 endangered languages for which there is population data, the overwhelming majority (2,124 or 92%) are spoken by fewer than 100,000 persons, which a UNESCO study has identified as a minimum population necessary to ensure intergenerational transmission.

The majority of these languages may thus be condemned to become extinct due to sheer demographic factors. Some 1,749 languages, representing 76% of endangered ones with population data, are actually spoken by less than 10,000 people. As stated earlier, these estimates represent a minimum floor, given that there are languages that suffer from a lack of data as to whether they are endangered.

 

The fewer the speakers the more intensive is the level of endangerment

Figure 3. Number and distribution of endangered languages spoken by fewer than 100,00 people by the level of
endangerment and by population categories (UNESCO Atlas of Languages in Danger, 2016)

UNESCO Atlas of Languages in Danger estimates that, below a population of 100,000, intergenerational transmission of a language is not ensured (See Figure 3. Number and distribution of endangered languages spoken by fewer than 100,00 people by the level of endangerment and by population categories).

The highest categories of language endangerment (“critically” or “severely” endangered) are indeed generally found among languages spoken by fewer than 100,000 persons. No less than 976 (56%) of languages spoken by less than 10,000 persons are either critically or severely endangered.

The same condition also affects 67 (18%) of languages spoken by between 10,000 and 99,999 persons. There are 18 languages spoken only by one person (which by definition defeats the purpose of communication), 27 by two persons and 147 by less than 10 persons, conditions that could be considered similar to extinction.

 

Since 2010, more languages, including those endangered, are being discovered

Figure 4. Evolution of the number of endangered languages identified by UNESCO, by level of endangerment level

Furthermore, since 2010 more endangered languages are being discovered.

The figure 4. Evolution of the number of endangered languages identified by UNESCO, by level of endangerment level does not suggest a growth in the number of endangered languages between two periods per se, but, rather, an increase in the number of extinct or endangered languages that have come to the attention of the researcher community.

Data on these languages pertain to a wide range of years in both cases.

 

The largest countries by number of endangered languages include both developed and developing countries, large or small by population

Figure 5. Top 20 countries with the largest number of languages in danger

Data also demonstrates that the largest countries by number of endangered languages include both developed and developing nations, large and small by population (see Figure 5: Top 20 countries with the largest number of languages in danger).

At the same time, there has been a renewed interest in safeguarding linguistic diversity as a vehicle of development. Moreover, the role of cutting edge, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is growing in language documentation, revitalization and inter-generational transmission. ICTs are vital educational and communication tool helping communities, public and private organizations to provide access to information and knowledge to all citizens.

That being said, the UNESCO and Talkmate launch event brings together a number of leading scientists, governmental officials, public and private organizations, UN organizations, as well as civil society to raise awareness of all stakeholders on the importance of linguistic diversity and multilingualism for sustainable and inclusive development. Accordingly, the thematic roundtable on “Language matters for development” assesses the current situation of linguistic diversity, identifies existing challenges and new opportunities arising from scientific and technological development, and exchanges the scientific information among higher educational institutions, national public institutions on linguistic diversity. It furthermore evaluates the application of languages in different domains and aims to create a new institutional network working on language issues.