Half the world's 6,000 languages are under threat of extinction, a new edition of the 'Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing' warned Thursday to mark International Mother Language Day.
The death of languages also spells the end of the culture which gave rise to them, making them "a living heritage we should cherish," said Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), commemorating the special day his agency established three years ago.
UNESCO plans to set up a monitoring system that will warn when an endangered language--classed as those no longer spoken by at least 30 percent of a community's children--is threatened with extinction. The agency is urging countries to protect languages as natural and cultural treasures.
A ceremony to mark Mother Language Day at UNESCO's Paris headquarters will feature a tribute to the former editor of the Atlas, Professor Stephen Wurm, who died last October. An Australian linguist of Hungarian origin, he spoke some 50 languages and pioneered the field study and analysis of local tongues in Papua New Guinea, which is home to 832 languages, more than any other country.
The Washington-based Worldwatch Institute says Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, and Papua New Guinea account for more than half of all languages in the world.
Australia is the country with the largest number of vanished or endangered languages, according to UNESCO. Until the 1970s Australia's aboriginal population was forbidden from speaking their 400 or so languages. Only about 25 are still commonly spoken. One, Wanyi, is spoken by only two people.
Although languages elsewhere in the world have been dying out for 300 years, extinctions are now occurring at a dramatic and steadily increasing pace, according to UNESCO.
Reasons given by the Atlas include communities broken up by outside groups who want to extract minerals, timber, and oil from their homelands; and official sanctions against the use of minority languages in schools, local authorities, and the media.
The Atlas also points out that languages spoken by minority communities can be eroded as part of efforts by parents to encourage their children to adapt to norms set by majority cultures, especially as a means to get a job.
Kate Saunders, senior news analyst with the London-based Tibet Information Network, said that such economic pressures are raising concerns about the survival of the Tibetan language, regarded by many Tibetans as an important element of their identity and culture.
"There is an almost irreconcilable conflict between the need for Tibetans to learn Chinese so that they are able to participate more fully in the economic sphere, and maintenance of a distinct Tibetan linguistic and cultural identity," says the Network.
Some 726 million people use Mandarin Chinese as their mother tongue, according to UNESCO, while 427 million are native English speakers and 266 million are native Spanish speakers. Almost 350 million speak other Chinese languages.
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