Languages at UNESCO
I have taken part in the life of FIT since 1993 when the Danish Translators’ Association
‘Translatørforeningen’ joined FIT for the second time at the Brighton Congress. Thus, coming to a FIT world
congress, or any other major FIT event, is like visiting family.
From 30 May – 1 June 2011 I had the honour of representing FIT at the UNESCO Expert Meeting
Towards UNESCO Guidelines on Language Policies: a Tool for Language Assessment and Planning at
UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. Attending this meeting was also like visiting family. Only it was not my own.
Many attendees knew each other quite well, and the memory and reference points of some went back a
long time when it came to language policy and language planning within the UNESCO framework.
Official context of the meeting
At the latest session of the General Conference, UNESCO’s Member States (October 2009)
adopted a resolution (cf. 35 C/Resolution 43), inviting the Director-General to continue to monitor:
(i) the impact of existing standard-setting instruments on the protection of languages;
(ii) national and regional policies on language protection and language planning; and
(iii) international cooperation programmes in this field, together with the provision of funds from
donors for that purpose.
The aim of the present expert meeting was to consolidate the action undertaken by the Organization to
implement item (ii) of the above resolution by bringing together the representatives of three
UNESCO Sectors, i.e. Education, Culture and Communication and Information, involved in
relevant programmes, and external experts working in such areas as linguistics, anthropology,
education, media and Internet.
The meeting was financed by the Norwegian Fund-in-Trust in the framework of Norway’s support to
UNESCO’s project ‘Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger (print edition and interactive online
resource)’ and UNESCO’s Regular Programme budget (2010-2011).
UNESCO’s methodological document entitled ‘Language Vitality and Endangerment’ (LVE) was
developed by an Ad hoc expert group comprising linguists from various regions in 2001-2002 and
adopted by an international meeting ‘Safeguarding Endangered Languages’ held at UNESCO
Headquarters in 2003. This document is a tool intended for those involved in designing language
maintenance and/or revitalization measures, surveying the status of languages and linguistic
diversity and developing language policies.
UNESCO operationalized the methodology in 2005 by developing a Data Collection
Questionnaire, made available online and also disseminated through various networks. Since
then, the LVE methodology has been used by individual researchers and in governmental
surveys. It has also been commented on by several scholars and government representatives.
The LVE identifies the following nine criteria (‘factors’) to be used in determining the degree of
vitality/endangerment of a language and developing measures for its maintenance or
1. Intergenerational language transmission
2. Absolute number of speakers
3. Proportion of speakers within the total population
4. Shifts in domains of language use
5. Response to new domains and media
6. Availability of materials for language education and literacy
7. Governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies including official status and use
8. Community members’ attitudes toward their own language
9. Amount and quality of documentation
The objective of the expert meeting was to develop a tool that would enable UNESCO’s Member
States to assess the language situation in a local or national context and, based on that
assessment, develop and implement appropriate language policies and measures. More specifically, the
meeting reviewed the use that has been made of the LVE paper and the
questionnaire over the past eight years, taking account of the critical comments and suggestions.
Objectives of the UNESCO Survey: Linguistic Vitality and Diversity
The objective is to collect a large and representative sample of comparable data on the world’s languages,
particularly endangered and indigenous languages. These data will be used to prepare the third revised
print edition of the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing,
http://www.unesco.org/culture/en/endangeredlanguages/atlas , and to create an interactive online
The data will also serve to develop a methodology for an “Indicator on the Status and Trends of Linguistic
Diversity and Numbers of Speakers of Indigenous Languages”, as requested by the States Parties to the
Convention on Biological Diversity: http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?pg=00144
That the meeting would generate the blueprint for the 2nd, revised and enhanced, edition of the Language
Vitality and Endangerment paper, accompanied by a more focused data collection questionnaire,
and possibly one or more complementary questionnaires or checklists to facilitate the planning of
appropriate measures and policies. In addition, the review and adjustments of UNESCO’s proposals for a
Language Vitality Indicator will result in a new methodological tool to be tested at the national, regional
and global levels. All the above materials will be published in electronic and print form.
UNESCO has been leading in matters concerning language vitality and endangerment for the last twenty
years. UNESCO cannot however interfere in internal affairs of the member states. UNESCO has a mandate
as an intergovernmental organization and thus gives recommendations to member states.
Which languages will survive and which languages will disappear is a matter of politics. What strategies
should UNESCO recommend governments: Acceptance of multiculturalism, acceptance of multilingualism,
a Marshall-plan for languages? Language planning should also address the question of endangerment.
Many language policies do not address the issue of multilingualism either, because multilingualism is seen
as a hindrance to national unity.
Effective implementation of language policies via top-down policies is difficult, and education is normally
top-down. It is important to address attitudes towards languages. UNESCO plays a central role to defend all
languages, also what is not necessarily a language from a technical point of view. What’s a language, what’s
a dialect, what’s a speaker, what’s a community?
A community is about social interaction and relationships. A language is what is being said: Minority
languages, Lesser used languages, Heritage languages, Migrant languages.
Bicultural education may be a shortcut, but it may also kill a language. Subtractive education in South
America aims at keeping the children in school for a year or two more, so that they slide into Spanish and
forget about their community language.
Identity is normally with one language, while other languages may be dominant. What we often see is
highly linguistically fractionalized out-of-school children. Languages will live or die through education.
Access to sign languages is a linguistic human right for deaf people, and for the first time sign language was
on the UNESCO languages vitality agenda.
Some countries are ideologically monolingual, but we must build on ‘coexistence of different languages for
different purposes’, build the future on a multilingual society. The status of languages in former colonized
areas is that the language of the colonizers is still the main language. A heritage language may often be
different from the dominant language.
Language is a very political issue, and ‘policy sometimes depends on politicians’. In India, 11 languages are
recognized in the Constitution. There are of course many more. But since 1971 the languages with less than
10.000 speakers have not been registered at all. Are they endangered, are the moribund, are they dead?
People learn better in the language they speak at home which is why education in the mother tongue is
necessary if we want education for all. We must learn in an embedded context so that no child is left
behind! Matters of identity and emotions have a say on learning. Mother tongue for literacy! Mother
tongue education everywhere! Give me back my heritage language! ‘Thank you for speaking my language!’.
All languages are good, all languages are equal, no language is bad, no hierarchy of languages should be
established. Language loyalty is crucial, low language loyalty is a problem, no loyalty means that the
language is gone. Endangered means that the language is not safe, and a positive attitude alone does not
Bilingualism often associates with underperformance. Multilingualism should associate with peace and
cross-border communication. UNESCO should recommend that multilingualism is good and exert influence
on the attitude of governments, of media and of people. Freedom of expression is associated with language
We have multilingualism going on, we want to encourage it. We want multilingual education everywhere.
No hierarchy of language learning. We should build on multilingual practices in education. Multilingualism
is a linguistic treasure. Monolingualism is western ideology: One nation, one people, one language, versus a
dance, a mountain, a language!
In South Africa, 11 languages are official, but between 25 – 30 languages are spoken in the country. What
will happen to the multitude of languages in Africa? All these languages are in danger because they are not
being used in school. They must get their ‘share of the pie of institutionalization’. In Africa most minority
languages are oral. Different status versions, different ways of speaking a language, different orthographies
in writing are important issues. We know ‘la batalla de la K’ in South America, and we must avoid
‘orthographic wars’. Identity issues may be overriding so that communality of purpose is not recognized
because of ownership to specific language versions. What is the purpose of literacy? Is there an
orthography? All languages are first of all unwritten. Are there competing orthographies? And how about
cultures that do not want their language in writing or in recording? We must keep room for oral only
education and avoid imposing western standards of education. There is a need to be context sensitive.
Television broadcasting as we know it is ‘cultural nerve gas’ or rather narrowcasting. What we can do about
media to avoid outright linguistic suicide and the catastrophy of mass language distinction is to create user-
or receiver-controlled content via public service contracts, guides on how to, language policies, staff
training, funding and development. Quite often minority and endangered languages get no government
support at all.
The use of languages on the Internet is a challenge. Interfaces regulate who have access, you have to be
literate, you have to know a language although sign languages do not have a writing literacy.
Communities can get recognition by governments, but how about cross-border language communities?
Inter-language marriages can contribute, but it can also take away.
We must consider also the value in a language. Which role can it play? Economic issues, vernacular
economies, foster opportunities in local languages, the political economy of languages. Speakers must be
productive citizens and generate value in the economy of multilingualism.
What kind of tools are needed to promote languages? A set of recommendations is needed for government
and other target groups, another set for academia.
Highlight the value of languages as an important resource. Support revitalization of languages and
multilingualism via legal frameworks and language policies.
Create digitalized modelling systems for linguistic systems and language communities. Express positive
value judgements in terminology. The countries must see themselves as part of a network for language
FIT is about translation, about interpretation and about terminology. But FIT is also about promotion of
languages, about status and recognition of languages, and about linguistic rights. I believe that FIT can
benefit from UNESCO, but I also believe that UNESCO can benefit from FIT. I therefore recommend that FIT
seeks a closer relationship with UNESCO at the central level, and that FIT member organizations and FIT
volunteers seek a closer cooperation at the regional, local and personal level with officials and volunteers of
Jørgen Christian Wind Nielsen
Copenhagen, June 2011
Photos on line:
The following background papers and documents were provided for the meeting:
1. UNESCO’s ‘Language Vitality and Endangerment’ Methodological Guideline: Review of
Application and Feedback since 2003, prepared by UNESCO’s Culture Sector, 2011
2. UNESCO Questionnaire ‘Language Vitality and Diversity’, prepared by UNESCO’s Culture
3. Public service broadcasting and language development: A summary report on the situation
in five countries, prepared by Mr Levi Obijiofor, School of Journalism and Communication,
University of Queensland, Brisbane for UNESCO’s Communication and Information
4. Assessing Language Situation and Planning in Relation to the Internet, prepared by Mr
Marcel Diki-Kidiri, University of Paris 7 for UNESCO’s Communication and Information
5. State of the Art on Multilingualism and Education, outline of the document prepared by
UNESCO’s Education Sector, 2011
Language Vitality and Endangerment methodological Guideline, 2003, UNESCO, prepared
by UNESCO Ad Hoc Group on Endangered Languages
UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, 2001
Public service broadcasting: a comparative legal survey, second edition, 2011, UNESCO
prepared by Tobi Mendel
Securing a Place for a Language in Cyberspace, 2008, UNESCO prepared by Marcel Diki-
Kidiri, CNRS research officer, Laboratory on “Language, Languages and Cultures of Black Africa” (LLACAN)
Recommendation concerning the Promotion and Use of Multilingualism and Universal
Access to Cyberspace, 2003, UNESCO
Implementation of Standard-Setting Instruments. Part IV. Application of the 2003
Recommendation concerning the Promotion and Use of Multilingualism and Universal
Access to Cyberspace, 21 March 2011 (second consolidated report), p. 19-25
First consolidation report to the General Conference on the measures taken by Member
States for the Implementation of the Recommendation concerning the Promotion and Use
of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace, 20 July 2007
Education in a Multilingual World, 2003, UNESCO Position Paper
Ethnologue, languages of the world
Draft official press release from the meeting:
“From Declaration to Action”: to pave the way towards Multilingual World
UNESCO held the expert group meeting entitled “Towards UNESCO guidelines on language policies: a tool
for language assessment and planning” from 30 May to 1 June 2011. For the first time at UNESCO more
than forty international experts working in areas such as linguistics, anthropology, education, media and
Internet have participated in a joint expert group meeting aimed to revise the existing world linguistic
policies and to pave the way for the development of a tool for language assessment and planning.
“Once again, through this gathering, we contribute to UNESCO’s efforts to promote multilingualism around
the world through education, science, culture, communication and information technologies (ICTs) using an
interdisciplinary approach,” – declared the experts who represent universities, research institutes, non-
governmental organizations and private companies from more than twenty different countries of the
Participants of the meeting stressed an urgent need to implement all existing international instruments and
commitments, use more efficiently developed tools and identify additional resources needed for language
assessment and planning. In addition, experts underlined that the new tool for language assessment should
be more interactive, focused on possibilities for practical action and tangible outcomes in an
interdisciplinary context, including economic and social development. More prominently, specialists
expressed common deep concern on the urgency of language loss and the status of endangered languages
around the world – a call for urgent actions at all levels to safeguard cultural and linguistic heritage.
The outcomes of this expert group meeting will lead to the development of a new tool that can enhance
the transition from a monolingual to a multilingual world as well as implementation of new initiatives such
as an idea to organize World Summit on Multilingualism.
Mr Adama Samassekou, the President of MAAYA, the World Network for Linguistic Diversity, and Chairman
of Broadband Commission uderlined durint the closing session that “Multilingualism should not be seen as
a problem, but rather as a solution, a tool for peace and democracy. It is a powerful resource and
instrument for peace building, reconciliation and dialogue among people”.
The event was jointly organized by three UNESCO Sectors for Education, Culture, Communication and
Information involved in the programmes relevant to linguistic diversity and multilingualism1.
All the materials related to the meeting will be published soon on UNESCO’s website.