Rieks Smeets

UNESCO: Intangible Heritage Section

UNESCO Activities for Safeguarding Endangered languages

1 The language issue in the UN context

In recent years, several international normative texts and declarations have testified to a growing awareness of the importance of language issues at the global level. Examples include:

  1. the Declaration of Vienna of the World Conference on Human Rights (1993), affirming the right for “persons belonging to minorities to use their own language” (art. 19);
  2. the call of the General Assembly of the United Nations for more attention to multilingualism (December 1999);
  3. resolution 56/262 (Part II) of the General Assembly of the United Nations focusing on the preservation and protection of all languages; and
  4. the report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations at its fifty-eighth session (2003), on measures to protect, promote and preserve all languages.

Moreover, linguistic diversity and its promotion are emphasized in the Declaration of Principles approved by the World Summit on the Information Society (paras. 52 and 53) in Geneva in December 2003.

Most of these texts deal with possible rights of individuals; the rights of groups and peoples to use their languages so far has been less well elaborated in international standard setting instruments.

2 Activities related to languages in the UNESCO context

Recognizing the need for an integrated vision of the issue of language in all aspects that relate to UNESCO’s mandate, the Organization, in recent times, has paid due attention to language issues while developing such normative tools as the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity and its Action Plan, adopted in 2001, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Recommendation on the Promotion and Use of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace; the latter two documents were adopted by the UNESCO’s General Conference in October 2003. [1] The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity probably is the most comprehensive text adopted by UNESCO in the field of culture.

The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity

The first of these three UNESCO documents, the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, acknowledges – among many other things - the relationship between biodiversity, cultural diversity and linguistic diversity; its action plan recommends that Member States, in cooperation with speaker communities, undertake steps to:

  1. sustain linguistic diversity and give support to expression, creation and dissemination in the greatest possible number of languages;
  2. encourage linguistic diversity at all levels of education, and to foster the learning of several languages from the youngest age;
  3. incorporate traditional pedagogies into the education process with a view to preserving and making full use of culturally appropriate methods of communication and transmission of knowledge;
  4. encourage universal access to information in the public domain through the global network, including the promotion of linguistic diversity in cyberspace.
The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage

The 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage aims, among other things, at safeguarding language as “a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage” [2], i.e. it recognizes the crucial role of languages for the expression and the intergenerational transmission of elements of our living heritage. Some of the domains of this heritage, such as oral expressions and traditions, are totally dependent on language. Safeguarding measures for language related topics may be expected to be put in place under this Convention. This Convention, the first binding international instrument of its kind, will probably enter into force in early summer 2006.

The Recommendation on the Promotion and Use of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace

By adopting the Recommendation on the Promotion and Use of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace, UNESCO’s General Conference in 2003 recognized the importance of promoting multilingualism and equitable access to information and knowledge, especially in the public domain, and reiterated its conviction that UNESCO should have a leading role in encouraging access to information for all, multilingualism and cultural diversity on the global information networks. In various documents and programmes UNESCO has stressed the importance of multilingualism and the need to introduce and promote it in and through education. [3]

3 UNESCO’s incentives

UNESCO’s activities for the promotion of linguistic diversity, of safeguarding endangered languages and of multilingualism, are rooted in the acknowledgement that languages are not just indispensable tools of communication, or vectors of culture and filters of worldviews and values, but also essential constituents of the self-consciousness and identity of individuals and societies. [4] Cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue, Education For All, and inclusive knowledge societies, which are all promoted by UNESCO, cannot but fail without appropriate commitment of all stakeholders to promote languages, including mother tongues and endangered languages, and multilingualism.

UNESCO is convinced that the extinction of each and every language means an irrecoverable loss. UNESCO cares because:

  • humanity developed and needs diversity;
  • languages reflect past experiences;
  • languages are tools for socialising and for expressing and transmitting social and cultural practices;
  • languages contribute to human knowledge;
  • languages are amazingly rich and diverse products of the creativity of the human mind;
  • languages attribute and confirm identity and are precious to their speakers. [5]

4 UNESCO’s activities on endangered languages

Activities with regard to promotion of multilingualism are carried out by all relevant UNESCO Sectors (Education, Communication, Culture and Social and Human Sciences) and in various intersectoral projects. In this presentation I will focus on UNESCO’s activities for the safeguarding of endangered languages.

The Endangered Languages Programme is one of the main activities of the Intangible Heritage Section of UNESCO’s sector for Culture. Four priority lines of action have been identified for the programme:

  1. awareness-raising of language endangerment (among decision-makers, the media, speakers of dominant languages, non-dominant groups, etc.), and of the need to safeguard linguistic diversity:
    • An example of awareness-raising is the partnership between UNESCO, UN Works and Discovery Communications, INC. A series of 20 ultra-short programmes on various endangered languages throughout the world has been produced and is broadcast to over 100 million viewers internationally on Discovery Channel.
    • Another example is the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing (1996, 2001) which aroused vivid interest among scholars and journalists, and became a reference book for the general public.). After two paper versions of the UNESCO Atlas, the information collected on a large number of endangered languages in all parts of the world will now be available online, starting with the African continent. This online edition has been developed as an inter-sectoral initiative (Culture and Communication and Information), in the framework of the Endangered languages and Multilingualism in Cyberspace programmes of UNESCO [6].
    • The main line of action “Enhancing the linkages between biological and cultural diversity as a key basis for sustainable development”, which involves the Natural Sciences Sector and the Culture Sector of UNESCO, pays due attention to studying the relevance of linguistic diversity for the transmission of traditional knowledge and the preservation of biological diversity.
  2. local capacity-building and promotion of language policies
    • Several forums organized by UNESCO in the 1990s addressed capacity-building and promotion of language policies in the Member States (with a focus on Africa). For example, the intergovernmental conference on language policies in Africa held in Harare in 1997, with a special focus on indigenous languages and multilingualism. In 2004, the initiative “Capacity-building for safeguarding languages and oral traditions and expressions in Sub-Saharan Africa” has been launched. [7]
    • In the current biennium (2004/2005), 5 pilot projects are directly implemented by local NGOs and researchers and 14 national and sub-regional capacity-building projects have been decentralized to UNESCO field offices throughout the world (with a special focus on Africa and Asia/Pacific). One example is the project “Safeguarding endangered languages of indigenous peoples of Siberia” coordinated by the UNESCO Moscow Office. One element of the project is this round table on endangered languages of the indigenous peoples of Siberia. The aims of the roundtable are to analyze the current status and problems of the endangered languages of indigenous peoples of Siberia and discuss appropriate safeguarding measures. Additional activities to be carried out in the framework of this project include the creation of a bilingual English/Russian data base on endangered languages in Siberia, its publication on a DVD (together with the bilingual English/Russian proceedings of the Round table) and the creation of an interactive portal on endangered languages of Siberian peoples on the web site of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) (linked to the UNESCO Moscow website).
  3. mobilization of international cooperation
    • In March 2003, UNESCO brought together experts from all over the world to enhance the Organization’s action in the field of endangered languages. The goal was to define and reinforce UNESCO’s role in supporting the world’s endangered languages. The meeting aimed at establishing criteria to assess language endangerment, reviewing the state of languages in various regions of the world, proposing to UNESCO’s Director-General mechanisms and strategies to safeguard endangered languages and to maintain and promote linguistic and cultural diversity.

5 Assessing language endangerment

The 2003 meeting resulted in the acceptance of recommendations to UNESCO and of a document called ‘Language Vitality and Endangerment’. This document is designed to indicate ways how to enhance the vitality of threatened languages. It identifies nine factors for determining the level of endangerment for languages.

For each factor, a score can be given varying from 5, meaning safe, till zero, meaning extinct (4: unsafe, 3: definitely endangered, 2: severely endangered, 1; critically endangered). This 6-level system is the last in a large number of similar attempts at classification. [8]

The nine factors can be divided into three sub-groups: the first six factors evaluate language vitality, the next two assess language attitudes and the last one evaluates the availability of documentation.

  1. Intergenerational language transmission

    Whether or not a language is being transmitted from one generation to the next is the most commonly used factor in evaluating the vitality of a language.

  2. Absolute number of speakers

    A small ethno-linguistic community may more readily disappear due to disease, warfare, or natural disaster than a larger one. It may also easily merge with a larger neighboring group, giving up its own language and culture. However, there are language communities of less than a thousand speakers that have been stable for centuries (The Russian republic of Dagestan provides several examples).

  3. Proportion of speakers within the total population

    The number of speakers of the ancestral language in relation to the total population of an ethno-linguistic group is a significant indicator of language vitality.

  4. Shifts in domains of language use

    Who speaks with whom about what and what are the trends?

  5. Response to new domains and media

    While some language communities do succeed in introducing their language into new domains of language use, most do not. If the language of a community does not meet the challenges of modernity, it becomes increasingly irrelevant and stigmatized.

  6. Curriculum materials for education and literacy

    Education in the language is essential for language vitality, literacy being linked with social and economic development. Books and materials are needed on all topics and for various age groups and language levels.

  7. Governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies including official status and use

    The language policies of a state may encourage linguistic minorities to maintain their language, or may force them to abandon it. Governmental and institutional attitudes towards languages are a powerful force both for the promotion and erosion of languages.

  8. Community members’ attitudes towards their language

    People usually are attached to their language, wishing to transmit and promote it. They may also be ashamed of it and, therefore, not promote it; or they may even see it as a liability and actively avoid using it.

  9. Amount and quality of documentation about the language

    A fair amount of documentation and publications about a language is helpful for standardizing it and for help it meet the requirements of modernity.

The nine factors can be used to first assess the language situation and to determine whether action is in order, and if so, what to do first. The experts participating in the March 2003 meeting warned that the tool they propose for measuring language endangerment cannot be applied blindly. A language that is ranked highly according to one criterion may deserve immediate and urgent attention on account of other factors. The factors are offered as guidelines only. Users should adapt them to the local context and to the specific purpose sought.

6 Conclusion

Through its programmes on endangered languages UNESCO wishes to contribute to the safeguarding and transmission of cultural diversity, linguistic diversity and also of the diversity of our living or intangible heritage, which depends to a large extent for its expression and transmission on orality.

Languages always have been developing and language split, merger and death may be called natural phenomena; however, the scale at which languages are disappearing nowadays appears to be unprecedented. Not all languages can be saved and actions only make sense if in the communities concerned there is a wide support for revitalization measures.

UNESCO’s actions aim at awareness raising among responsible authorities as well as at contributing to building capacities among researchers, officials and speaker communities. For languages to survive in modernity, is not an easy challenge: the language has to be used in a large number of relevant domains, for instance in education, in the media and in public space; it also has to be highly thought of by its speakers. For this to be possible good and extensive language documentation is necessary, among other things, such as, for instance, the selection or creation of a standard form of the language, a standardized writing system and the development of teaching materials and the collection and publication of literary and other texts.

If we want to make a difference and if we want to be able to measure the impact of the implementation of language policies and planning activities, we need figures, not just about numbers of languages and speakers, but also about the status, corpus and acquisition of languages. UNESCO’s Intangible heritage Section will be happy to continue to the development of detailed indicators that will allow us to measure and monitor the developments of languages, especially of endangered languages.


  1. In order to optimize results in the field of promotion of multilingualism, the 171 session of the Executive Board (April 2005) has agreed with a proposal by the Director-General of UNESCO to create “an overall strategy for an intersectoral programme of languages at UNESCO”. The strategic goal of the programme will be twofold: first, to enhance and preserve linguistic diversity worldwide, and second, to mainstream the “linguistic dimension” (i.e. the recognition of the importance of languages and of linguistic diversity) in all policies and fields of action of the Organization. Language in this vision is to become a factor that has to be taken into due consideration in conceptualizing, implementing and assessing development programmes worldwide. [ back ]
  2. http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/l, article 2.2. [ back ]
  3. See, for example, the 2003 UNESCO Education Position Paper “Education in a multilingual world”. [ back ]
  4. This major conceptual landmark for the Organization was elaborated in 1998 at the Stockholm Conference on Cultural Policies for Development. [ back ]
  5. There are eight languages that have over a hundred million of speakers; some 2,5 billion people were born to be native speakers of these languages. Their absolute majority is monolingual, and as a rule they can use their mother tongue in all spheres of life. There are, on the other hand, some 500 languages with less than a hundred speakers, and some 3,400 languages with less than 10,000 native speakers. The linguistic condition of children born in huge and of those born in tiny language communities are quite different, and so will be, unavoidably, their attitudes towards their native language and towards multilingualism. In fact, they are born with unequal linguistic rights, or, to phrase things more carefully, on different sides of a communicative divide. [ back ]
  6. The Atlas can be accessed from the UNESCO web site. [ back ]
  7. A survey carried out among over 80 university departments and research institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa allowed to establish a state of the art of their current activities in research and education on African languages, to assess major needs and to single out the main issues to be addressed by this project. Extrabudgetary funding is currently raised to organize two regional meetings of the representatives of the universities, research centers and NGO/IGOs concerned. The objective of the project is threefold: (i) to strengthen the national and regional institutional capacities for language preservation (at African universities, national research institutes and in regional institutions), (ii) to promote south-south and north-south cooperation in Sub-Saharan Africa and (iii) to foster the implementation of appropriate national language policies, which are so often disregarded due to the lack of resources and trained specialists. [ back ]
  8. Crystal (2000) proposes: safe, endangered, extinct; Kraus (1992) proposed to have moribund (languages no longer transmitted to new borns) between endangered and extinct; Wurm (1998) distinguished the following levels of endangerment: potentially endangered, endangered, seriously endangered, moribund, extinct. [ back ]
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