Language is much more than an instrument, considerably more than a tool. In structuring our thoughts, in coordinating our social relations and in building our relationship with reality, it constitutes a fundamental dimension of the human being. It is in and through language that we live.
From the first to the last moments of our existence, from generation to generation, language accompanies, serves and creates us. It is at the heart of family life, work, school, politics, the media, justice and scientific research. It is also central to religion.
It is therefore natural that, far from being perceived as a mere technical question, the use of languages should be at the junction of many sensitive and diverse problem areas. The use, or non-use, of a language in public spheres such as schools, the media or the Internet is thus linked to levels of identity, national allegiance or power.
Aware of these issues, the UNESCO General Conference decided in November 1999 to establish International Mother Language Day as an occasion for reflection and mobilization. Since then, the attention focused on language questions has steadily increased. It is significant that several standard-setting instruments drawn up in the intervening period within UNESCO contain many references to languages. This is the case of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity and its Action Plan (2001), the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), the Recommendation concerning the Promotion and Use of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace (2003) and the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005).
The proclamation, by the African Union, of 2006 as the Year of African Languages and the meetings held during and between the two phases of the World Summit on the Information Society, between December 2003 and November 2005 should also be placed in this context of growing interest. Those deliberations represent, on the strength of the quantity and the quality of the resources mobilized and the impact that they may have on our societies, an indisputable success. Those meetings paid particular attention to the major theme of multilingualism in cyberspace, on which I propose to place special emphasis during the debates and activities of this sixth International Mother Language Day. For cyberspace constitutes an essential dimension for the expression and the promotion of languages, and the presence of a language on the Web is only possible if a number of political, social and technical conditions are met.
UNESCO is duty bound to facilitate the creation of those conditions in a coordinated manner at the national, regional and international levels and will willingly continue to play its role most actively as a laboratory of ideas, a catalyst and an international advocate, by facilitating discussion, negotiation and effective and sustainable multilateral action which holds out hope for all.
But UNESCO’s commitment will only be effective if it is linked to that of the entire international political, scientific, educational and cultural community. The promotion of languages in cyberspace, a key factor for the building of knowledge societies in a truly multicultural context, cannot take place without the participation of all the political, social and academic actors concerned.
Thus, on this day of celebration, reflection and mobilization, I appeal to all the prime movers in the political and economic world and civil society so that the cause of languages and their diversity, in particular in cyberspace, may be duly appreciated and furthered in a fashion commensurate with the key issues at stake.