Recent developments in linguistic diversity monitored by UNESCO

Over the past year, the on-line edition of the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which was launched seven years ago on Mother Tongue Day in 2009, has benefited from the support and interest of its readers and users around the world. Over 500 suggestions for improvements and additions to its coverage have been received by UNESCO over that period.

These have concerned the status of a given language on the UNESCO endangerment scale (from vulnerable to extinct), the geographical location of a language’s main speech community, alternative names for languages, on-line links to teaching materials and other linguistic information, and interventions on the perennial question of language vs. dialect. Some new languages have also been identified for inclusion.

For instance, over the past year, the data on Canada’s endangered indigenous languages has been extensively revised, on the basis of new information from Statistics Canada and the Department of Canadian Heritage. Some, like Tagish, have become extinct since UNESCO first logged them; others, e.g. Nisga’a, are subject to revitalization efforts, and some have actually increased their numbers of speakers, like Swampy Cree. And then, there are several newly identified languages: not new discoveries, but new definitions as separate languages, as more is currently known about them. For example, the Carrier language as formerly listed is now listed as four distinct languages: Nedut’en, Witsuwit’en, Central Dakelh and Southern Dakelh.

Elsewhere in the world, the UNESCO Editorial Team has valuable new information about languages whose endangerment was not known before, such as the languages of the Alor-Pantar family in Indonesia, based on information supplied by expert researchers, and verified independently. Even some formerly robust languages could fall into an endangered situation, where institutional support is lacking.

Some, like Belarusian, are strengthened by initiatives at the community level. On the other hand, some languages which were thought to be severely endangered, such as Kassanga in Senegal, have been proved through fieldwork to be in a relatively stable state.

The above-mentioned examples demonstrate that even in a well explored and interconnected world, there is still much to learn about those languages that never enjoy the limelight. The Atlas will continue to serve as a gateway to the understanding of their status and conditions, and as a means of preventing their disappearance through improved awareness and encouraging their revitalization.

The UNESCO Atlas is entering a new phase of development. The UNESCO Editorial Team plans to include data on the world’s endangered Sign Languages in the coming year, for instance, and to expand the links to educational resources about the world’s threatened languages. The Atlas is thus increasingly becoming an educational tool.

Furthermore, UNESCO now moves towards the development of a World Atlas of Languages by scaling up the existing version of the Atlas of Languages in Danger and by establishing a Global Task Force on Multilingualism in Cyberspace (Ref. UNESCO Executive Board document 199 EX/4.INF).