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International Mother Language Day UNESCO Meeting 2009 Part 2

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This session is introducing the third edition of the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. The atlas is now online at

The hard-copy version will be released in late May.

This third edition includes data on 2500 languages, which is greatly expanded from the previous editions. This does not mean that a huge number of new languages have become endangered, but that more data has become available. At the same time, we do know that more and more languages are becoming endangered.

This is intended as a scientific tool, not a political tool - a point that might seem obvious, but the statement of which bears out how fraught language issues often are within political debates.

The new Atlas online is much more versatile than the previous print editions, and will continue to be expanded online on an ongoing basis. One feature is the use of Google Maps, which is able to take advantage of the localization work that Google has done so that people can access the map data in a wide variety of languages.

The Editor-in-Chief, Christopher Moseley, is talking:

Almost no countries in the world are truly monolingual. However, many countries that contain many languages are greatly tilted toward one, or at most a few, of the languages contained within their borders. Language death is, to some extent, inevitable - the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest does apply to languages as well. However, we now have the tools at our disposal to take steps to prevent the loss of this language diversity, which represents such an important part of our global cultural knowledge and patrimony.

Physical representations of where languages exist in the world are not easy, since they do not correspond to national borders. Many endangered languages are spoken in very small areas that are difficult to show on a large-scale map. And languages overlap, either with different groups interlaced in the same territory, or even the same people speaking several languages of a region.

The Atlas has 5 degrees of endangeredness, listed on the site, from unsafe to extinct. Even extinct languages can potentially be revived, if the language has been well documented. The example is given of Cornish, which lost several generations of speakers, but is now being revived in the southwest corner of England. Without documentation, though, a language that goes extinct will be lost forever.

The problem of distinguishing between separate languages, versus dialects of the same language, is addressed. Detailed socio-linguistic studies are necessary to resolve such questions.

I am going to shut down for a while to preserve battery life, and suggest that people browse through the Atlas website at to get a feel for the tool that is being demonstrated to the audience right now.

The second speaker has been Marlene Haboud, who has talked about the process of documenting the languages of the Andes. A multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual team went on a quest to find the information about languages in the region, for example in Ecuador. They came across one language that was thought to be extinct, but in fact there was a small pocket of speakers on the other side of the border in Brazil. She raises the question of what happens to a language when people emigrate - not just among the people who leave, but also among the people who remain behind. And she makes an appeal for thoroughly documenting languages in danger, so that they can be preserved by the living speakers, can be preserved in human memory, or can be revived by cultural movements later on.

On a side note, there has been a wide variety of ring tones on display in the conference room. How can anyone in this day and age come to a meeting like this and not silence their phone? One person even answered his phone and had a conversation, waving off the people who were trying to get him to shut up!",


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