FORUM UNESCO SU DIVERSITA' LINGUISTICA
Quello che segue Š il sunto della relazione sulla diversit… linguistica durante il Forum “ci sar… il XXI° secolo? – dialoghi del XXI° secolo”, svoltosi nella sede dell'Unesco di Parigi a partire dal dal 16 Settembre 1998.
THE FUTURE OF THE CULTURE
What future for the language in the 21st century?
By Stephen WURM and Laurent SAGART
Emeritus Professor of linguistics and Research Director at the Australian National University, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies. He is Chairman of the International Permanent Committee of Linguists and President of the Australian Academy of Sciences. In addition to numerous articles and publications, he has also edited Endangered Languages (1991), the Atlas of World Languages in Danger of Disappearing (1996) and the Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia and the Americas (1997).]
Stephen WURM points out that 3,000 languages out of a total of 6,000 are presently threatened with disappearance. This threat exists to various degrees: for example, if the children of one linguistic community wish to speak another language, or if a community is close to a dominant group whose language is different. Furthermore, the danger varies according to the ages of the persons who use a given language. In a climate of oppression, languages can survive without anyone knowing it (this was the case in the former USSR). In a general way, persons concerned by the possible disappearance of a language use several languages to the risk of seeing the minority language disappear. Would bilingualism or multilingualism be the solution? No doubt this is so, to the extent that multilingual persons have capacities that are superior to those who are monolingual (active memory, better capacity for learning, etc.).
Why preserve minority languages? The languages spoken by mankind make up an integral part of its cultural heritage. Consequently, each language represents a unique vision of the world. Furthermore, each language has its own literature and its own mythology. Preserving a language means preserving the rights of a community and thus of mankind. In this regard, the backing up of minority languages by governments following realisation of the threat by linguistic communities is to be stressed (cf. Canada with its Indians or the Japanese government and the A‹nus).
In a general way, countries where several languages are used, as in Switzerland or in India, accommodate systems of education that are highly specific. Education is based on written language, which poses a problem. However, these countries are beginning once again to practice multilingualisim, with one dominant language, but also diversity in education. At the same time, linguists have become more interested in threatened languages (as shown by the publication of an atlas of languages, thanks notably to support from UNESCO some fifty languages that were formerly threatened, with only eight or ten speakers, are currently spoken by more than five hundred users.
Laurent SAGART began by pointing out a paradox: the number of people is increasing sharply, but the number of languages spoken in the world is decreasing! It is true that a small number of languages are carriers of modernity. Furthermore, a number of languages are used by small communities whose way of life excite no optimism as to their future.
Impoverishment of the cultural heritage, disappearance of oral literatures, definitive loss of an enormous quantity of scientific information . . . . The consequences of the disappearance of languages are multiple. How do languages die? This evolution can be gradual, when, notably, two groups live in cohabitation with two languages and a tendency to neglect the language that is not the one spoken by the dominant group. Children are then urged to speak “the other language.” This was the case in France or in Australia. Nevertheless, there is a tendency for some languages to emerge when, for example, dialects become languages. However, this beneficial logic fits in with the long term, while destructive effects are strong and immediate. Certain factors help languages to resist (national language, written literature, the fact that a language represents a strong symbol in national identity, etc.).
Endangered languages are numerous on all continents. The Pacific is a region of diversity, with more than 900 languages in New Guinea, for example, although populations speaking them are low in number, whence the high level of risk. This is why the public authorities should back up multilingualism by, for example, restoring the pride of a community in its language. It still remains, however, that the possibilities for rescue are limited. The emergency for mankind is thus to preserve as much data on languages and cultures as possible. Things can also be looked at in a positive way for the next century: the decrease in the number of languages in the world could make possible better education, translations, a larger community of thought, etc.