Multilingualism is the theme of this year's International Mother Language Day, which is celebrated on 21 February. In his message for International Mother Language Day, Koïchiro Matsuura, the Director-General of UNESCO, advocates an approach "removed from any purely identity-based conception of languages". As he explains, "UNESCO thus endeavours to promote multilingualism, in particular in the education system, by encouraging the recognition and acquisition of at least three levels of language proficiency for all: a mother tongue, a national language and a language of communication. The promotion of linguistic and cultural diversity is supported by commitment to dialogue among peoples, cultures and civilizations." He then launches an appeal "for national and regional language strategies to be promoted in such a way as to build a harmonious environment for all the languages of the world."
Multilingualism today is more of an ideal than an actual reality:
- 96% of the world's 6,000 languages are spoken by only 4% of the world's population;
- fewer than a quarter of them are used in education and cyberspace, most of them only occasionally;
- fewer than 100 languages are to be found in the digital world.
At present, there is no universal methodology to measure systematically and accurately the diversity of languages on the internet. Those methodologies that are available, however, identify the seven languages most used: English, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, German, French and Korean. By all accounts, English ranks first, but its prevalence varies from 35% to 72%, depending on the source.
UNESCO's Index Translationum - the only international bibliography of translations to include such a wide range of disciplines with 1,650,000 references in literature, the social and human sciences, the natural and exact sciences, art, history, etc.- shows that between 1979 and 2004, the seven languages most translated world-wide were all Western: English, French, German, Russian, Italian, Spanish and Swedish. Japanese, however, is one of the languages most translated into, ranking fifth after German, Spanish, French and English and followed by Dutch and Portuguese, respectively sixth and seventh. Different facets of multilingualism will be discussed during the meetings to mark International Mother Language Day at UNESCO on 21 and 22 February.
On Wednesday February 21, Ernesto Bertolaja, Daniel Prado and François Zumbiehl of the Latin Union will speak with Manuel Tost (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) and Delicia Villagra (Embassy of Paraguay in France) on the subject of "Multilingualism in Romance-language countries". They will analyze the relationship between languages spoken in certain multilingual Latin states and the means to promote them (English and French interpretation). Room XII, 10.15 a.m. - 12.30 p.m.
Assia Djebar, first novelist of North African origin elected to the French Academy, will speak of "Mother Writing". Mireille Calle-Gruber, writer and critic, professor at the University of Paris III, will analyze the impact of Ms Djebar's mother languages - Berber and Arabic - on the language she writes, which is French (English and French interpretation). Room XII, 1.45 - 3.30 p.m.
That same day, several philosophers and writers - Barbara Cassin, Ali Benmakhlouf, Michel Deguy, Robert Maggiori, Xavier North and René Zapata - will base their discussion on the work "European Vocabulary of Philosophies: Dictionary of the Untranslatable" (co-editors Seuil/Le Robert), a new approach to the difficulty of translating philosophy (English and French interpretation). Room X, 3.15 - 5.30 p.m.
"The Challenges of Bridge Building: From Mother Tongue to Multilingual Education" will be the subject of the debate organized by the American NGO, SIL International (in English). Room VIII, 3.45 - 5 p.m.
On Thursday 22 February, the workshop "Recent Experiences on Measuring Languages in Cyberspace" will review and compare recent projects, particularly African and Asian projects, to measure the presence of languages in cyberspace. Participants include Adama Samassekou, African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) and Yoshiki Mikami, Language Observatory Project (LOP). Frederic Monràs from Linguamón - House of Languages (Catalonia) will present "How to pattern Internet multilingually (and how to cluster it)". The French version of the work Comment assurer la présence d'une langue dans le cyberespace, will be introduced by its author, Marcel Diki-Kidiri. During the day, the short film "The Dragon speaks with Two Tongues" will be screened. Directed by Gwyneth Edwards, it focuses on the "peaceful cohabitation" of English and Welsh in Wales (15', English and Welsh). Room XVI, UNESCO, 1, rue Miollis, Paris 15e, 10 a.m. - 6.30 p.m.
International Mother Language Day aims to promote the recognition and use of the world's mother languages, particularly minority ones. It was proclaimed in 1999 during the 30th session of UNESCO's General Conference.