[MLE] UNESCO's Task Force on Languages and Multilingualism

Dear Interest group,
It seems the interest in MLE from the international community is still on the rise. Read below about a new task force set up within UNESCO on Languages and Multilingualism. The official Unesco info on that you can find on

As a result of that Unesco Delhi had to submit a report on what is going on in India. I will forward that to you next week.


Karsten van Riezen
Education Consultant, SIL Int.
SIL, South Asia Group.

From: Dave_Pearson@sil.org [mailto:Dave_Pearson@sil.org]
Sent: 23 October 2006 20:38
Subject: UNESCO's Task Force on Languages and Multilingualism

Dear Colleagues,
The first meeting of UNESCO's Task Force on Languages and Multilingualism gives a fascinating insight into UNESCO's increasing focus on language issues. The main responsibility of this Task Force is "to ensure that the issue of languages is embedded effectively within the work of all sectors, that the intersectoral articulation of all language-related activities is further developed within a coherent action plan and that decisions taken in this respect are implemented".
Points of note from the minutes of the first meeting:
  • The meeting was chaired by UNESCO's Director General himself, a clear indication of how important this is to UNESCO.
  • UNESCO is compiling a compendium of their existing language-related activities and drafting a strategy for 2008-2009 comprising advocacy, policy advice, capacity-building and monitoring.
  • The head of the Culture Sector stressed that UNESCO's work plans do not reflect the Organization's commitment to multilingualism; as an example she mentioned the case of the Education Sector, where practice and promotion of multilingualism (mother tongue at primary level plus a national and a vehicular language), although absolutely necessary to quality education, is not part of the Education sector's programme. She wants to reduce this discrepancy between formal goals and real programmes through concrete activities to satisfy the increasing demand in this area (2006 is the year of African Languages).
  • The head of the Education Sector called for concrete action in the field of teacher training, especially in multicultural societies with migrant populations. To identify the best ways to intervene in this field, he suggested that UNESCO carry out studies financed by all sectors, recognising  that multilingualism is important both in formal and non-formal education.
  • The Director General said the promotion of local languages alongside national ones in governmental linguistic and educational policies is a trend that UNESCO should welcome and promote (example: the Guarani).
  • The head of the Africa Sector said to be effective UNESCO must work at three specific activity domains linked to languages: multilingual literate environment, culture of peace (in particular in post-conflict situations) and freedom of expression (which is only for the √©lite if the languages spoken by the populations are not employed).
  • The representative of the head of the Communication and Information Sector said some languages/scripts concern small segments of the population and do not have markets. He highlighted the link between language and media development, showing how media sustain the prevalence and development of languages, as community media are operated in vernacular languages of the community.
  • The head of the Natural Sciences Sector identified priority domains for UNESCO's future action: 1) advocacy activities targeting policy makers 2) better linkage between cultural heritage and languages preservation and 3) the creation of networks of relevant partners (like specialized institutions, universities). He also said that an updated version of the Atlas on Endangered Languages should be published.
  • The representative of the head of the Social and Human Sciences Sector noted that multilingualism is intrinsically linked to democracy and every social transformation has a linguistic dimension. To participate democratically and benefit from human rights, new immigrants should be able to learn both in their original language and in the language of their host country. He concluded that one of the main challenges to be faced in the near future is the protection of the rights of the speakers of oral languages.
  • The head of the Bureau for Strategic Planning said the principal domains for UNESCO's action should be: 1) monitoring, 2) policy advice in education, 3) linguistic integration in the African continent, 4) cyberspace and multilingualism (mapping what is being done), 5) information, communication and knowledge-broking tools (like publications, on-line databases).
  • The head of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Section said there is a growing interest on the part of Members States for the development of standard-setting tools, mainly focusing on rights, in the field of languages. UNESCO should be ready for this challenge. But it is not clear whether Member States truly intend to play an active role in this regard. A clarification in this respect is essential. He pointed out that the safeguarding of the now existing 6,000 languages is impossible and that it would realistic to limit ourselves to the protection of 10% of the world's languages (which represents an ambitious objective).
  • The head of the Culture Sector said that linguistic rights is an extremely delicate matter for UNESCO at present. She recalled the political problems UNESCO encountered in the past in this respect (the Pen declaration, a book by the Basque UNESCO Club where the term of "linguistic genocide"" was used). UNESCO should promote/protect cultural diversity, and not a particular situation or configuration of cultural diversity. UNESCO should certainly be an observer of trends in this field. The next monitoring report on Education For All, for instance, should also contain pieces of information and elements of discussion related to languages and multilingualism. Furthermore, she pointed out that we have some trends, positive examples and success stories in the field of linguistic policies (like the Indian one). She underlined that there is a lack of capacity-building initiatives and said that we could be more active in this area, notably by promoting and facilitating the creation of "Category II" institutes in different domains (like the Arab literary translation or linguistic research). Another possible domain for action could be the exchange of best practices and the development of information and knowledge-broker tools like the Index Translationum.
  • A representative from the Communication and Information Sector called for pilot projects on language revitalisation "from orality to cyberspace".
  • A group of Member States might propose to the current General Assembly of the United Nations that 2008 be declared International Year of Languages. Should this be the case, UNESCO should develop its language strategy in an inter-agency framework.
The Task Force will meet again in October with the Culture Sector head as Chair, and then again in December with the Director General as Chair. Dave Pearson Permanent Representative to UNESCO SIL International Tel:        +44 1604 583693 Mob:        +44 7985 256581 Web:        www.sil.org E-mail:        dave_pearson@sil.org