UNESCO has proclaimed 2008 as International Year of Languages with February 21 2008 having particular significance as it is also International Mother Language Day. The UNESCO announcement is interesting for a number of reasons.
Arguments presented in support of the crucial role of languages include: “Languages are indeed essential to the identity of groups and individuals and to their peaceful coexistence. They constitute a strategic factor of progress towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between the global and the local context.” Their role in eliminating extreme poverty, combating AIDS/HIV and other diseases, and safeguarding of local and indigenous knowledge and know-how with a view to ensuring environmental sustainability is also highlighted.
While some of these arguments apply to to own interest in the Welsh language, it is always nice to be reminded of the wider contexts and the significance of language in those contexts. It also causes me to pause for reflection on the term “indigenous language” which tends to be used to only to describe certain types of indigenous language (and would typically not be used to describe Welsh, or indeed English). Of course finding an appropriate term to cover a whole variety of contexts is difficult, 'minority', 'lesser-used', 'disadvantaged’, 'threatened', 'endangered', 'indigenous', 'heritage', 'local’, 'non-state', ‘regional’ and so on.
The significance of the internet is also strongly stated in the announcement: ”...within the space of a few generations, more than 50% of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world may disappear. Less than a quarter of those languages are currently used in schools and in cyberspace, and most are used only sporadically…Our common goal is to ensure that the importance of linguistic diversity and multilingualism in educational, administrative and legal systems, cultural expressions and the media, cyberspace and trade, is recognized at the national, regional and international levels.”
My impression is that television used to be the holy grail of minority languages, is the internet perhaps rivaling it for significance – and if so is it significant only as a symbol or as a real tool of use by speakers?