Munduko hizkuntzen amarauna
World Languages Review

World Laguages Review: Synthesis
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The languages of Europe
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In 2005 the English version of the Review was published by Multilingual Matters (Words and Worlds) and the Basque version of the Review (Hizkuntzen Mundua; Munduko hizkuntzei buruzko txostena) by the University of the Basque Country. In 2006 we present the French Version Un monde de paroles, paroles du monde (L'harmattan) . And the Spanish version Palabras y mundos. Informe sobre las lenguas del mundo (Icaria). All the previous work done for the four versions has been financed by the Department of  Culture of the Basque Government.


The World Languages Review Project stems from the Linguapax International Seminar on Language Policies held in Leioa (Basque Country) in 1996, where the Director General of UNESCO, Federico Mayor Zaragoza, proposed the need for research into the situation of languages around the world. Mr. Mayor Zaragoza specifically pointed to the necessity of producing the first UNESCO Review on the state of languages in the world. The Review would detail the linguistic richness of the inhabitants of the planet and explain the problems affecting languages in different regions of the world, in an attempt to foster an awareness of our linguistic heritage, contribute to observe its evolution and recommend up-to-date measures to protect living languages." (Federico Mayor Zaragoza. Leioa, 11 March 1996).

After this first exposition of needs and the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Basque Government and UNESCO by the President of the Basque Country and the Secretary General of UNESCO in Paris on 23 July 1997, and after the approval of the project by the General Conference (29th meeting period) of UNESCO within the Programme and Budget for 1998-1999 (Document 29 C/5), the project UNESCO Review on the State of Languages in the World began.



The Review has three purposes, to collect information and documentation on languages world wide in order to create a basic data bank on the world's linguistic heritage, to diagnose, and to prospectively analyse the sociolinguistic situation. This is intended to facilitate decision-making concerning policies for the encouragement and recovery of languages in danger of depletion or even of extinction.

For this project, UNESCO relies on the collaboration of experts working in various commissions. The Scientific Committee, integrated by international specialists and chaired by Miquel Siguán, has an advisory role. The Technical Committee, made up of professors from the University of the Basque Country (Universidad del Pais Vasco- Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea), University of Salamanca and the University of Barcelona, is based at the headquarters of UNESCO Etxea, which is in charge of the general coordination and implementation of the project at the Technical Secretariat.




In accordance with the purposes of the project, the theoretical base stems from the results obtained by the research work done in the field of language replacement processes. So far, the available data have shown the constant decline of the number of languages over the last 30 years, the decrease in the number of speakers in a majority of the languages, and the increase in the number of speakers in the more widespread languages such as English, Swahili, Tagalo and Indonesian. It is estimated that there are currently between 5000 and 6000 living languages but that most of them are going to die in the near future. Some scholars argue that "over the last 500 years, half of the existing languages have died. According to Décsy's statistics, from 1970 to 1985 the number of languages decreased from 4500 to 2700; i.e., in a 15-year period 1800 languages have disappeared. At present, approximately 2000 languages are no longer transmitted. Given the continuity of this current trend, 90% of the Human language heritage will disappear during the 21st century". Therefore, the goal of the project´s descriptive phase is to objectively show that the language unification process is a world-wide phenomena, but one which is differentiated according to the geographical area and the type of language community.

Research on language replacement is relatively new in sociolinguistics. This project departs from the exhaustive information on works carried out in this field of knowledge. The results achieved so far have indicated that the diagnosis about the future of these languages is usually based on the perception of speakers and often ignores the trend towards unification; this is why this Review places especial emphasis on the diagnosis as one of its purposes, in order to offer reliable predictions on world languages. That is, it intends to offer objective information explaining the situation as well as the dynamics of languages.

The fact that this Review deals with languages of the entire world and does not focus only on specific languages should allow us to overcome the main barrier that has hampered research so far and enable us to make an accurate diagnosis. Limiting the research to specific languages has hampered studying them in their context. In other words, previous studies have not taken into account the fact that languages exist in environments where expanding languages exert a great influence on the other ones.

One should bear in mind that, so far, the only explanation of language replacement processes has been the theory articulated by Hans-Jürgen Sasse (1992). His approach was necessarily based on the few cases studied up to that moment. Considering the scope of our project, it will probably become possible to establish new generalisations that provide a new framework for further study on the death of languages. In other words, through its analysis of the dynamics of languages, the Review will allow the delimitation and broadening of research action fields.

There is no doubt that the most ambitious goal of the project is its prospective side. Bearing in mind that the conflicts emerging in different countries are almost always linked to cultural and linguistic identity issues and that the disappearance of languages limits resources for cultural survival and it ends up in numerous collective pathologies (as in the cases of the pigmies of Central Africa, the khoisan people from Southern Africa, the Australian aborigines, the Amerindian population of the USA and Canada or amazonian communities), it becomes obvious that it is urgent to act in order to prevent the full development of these communities from being obstructed. In other words, there is no doubt about the necessity of carrying out appropriate language policies that will pave the way towards a good understanding of the communities living together throughout the world.

The description of the world linguistic heritage, the systematisation of the methods of diagnosis that allow us to obtain data on the knowledge, use and evolution of the languages, as well as the systematisation of the hypothesis about the future of language diversity and the forecasts about the development of language communities are an essential part of the work that still needs to be carried out if coherent decisions are to be taken. That is why the purpose of this project is:

  • To gather as much information as possible on languages, while realising a contrasted analysis of the data available.
  • To follow up paradigmatic cases in an exhaustive fashion in order to define relevant variables in processes of language replacement and in language dynamics in general.
  • To design implementation and follow up measures for the development of the project after its initial phase.

As we already stated, the project takes account of the exhaustive appealing to the sources and counts on the work that has been already done in this field. However,we find out that it is not possible to obtain information about all languages. In this sense,

it is important to mention that lack of information will be viewed as information. Those languages or areas for which information is unavailable will be the object of a special follow-up in order to detect possible genocides, deportations, etc. This aspect will be an important part of the prospective objective of the project and will provide it with a totally new focus as, until now, lack of information has only been examined for particular languages but not in a global fashion.

It is important to point out that information processing will be based on data for communities independently of administrative borders. This aspect of information processing will be essential for the prospective objective of the project, as it implies relevant variations in the number of inhabitants. In general, the data on the number of speakers comes from official censuses which are obviously restricted by state borders, but if we look at linguistic communities, these vary considerably. If we take as an example the data from the 1996 edition of the Ethnologue, the reckoning of languages spoken by fewer than 1,000 people in Brazil (144), Canada (39), India (76), USA (124), Zaire (6) and Cameroon (23) adds up to a total of 412 languages with fewer than 1,000 speakers. If, on the other hand, we look at the number of languages in these areas with fewer than 1,000 speakers, the result is 374. This small sample is enough to show that an efficient linguistic policy must transcend the administrative scope and take into account historical, geographical, sociological and other aspects. All these will have to be taken into account in processing the information obtained.

The extintion of languages is one of the most serious problems of this century and, furthermore, it seems an irreversible problem. Besides the fact that speakers do not usually realise about their language to be dying until the process is irreversible, it seems obvious that it is urgent to find a way out that impulses the protection of the world language richness. For that purpose to be achievable the international community needs an objective information about languages. In this sense, the World Languages Review promoted by UNESCO can help not only saving the weakest languages but can also assist the creation of formula that avoid unjust hyerachical structuring. Languages and cultures, as people, are equal in what concerns to dignity even if there are noticeable differences in what concerns to the demographic, political and economic aspects. As Carme Junyent points out "It might be worthwhile to think about what kind of experiences an elder person might have had so that he rejects passing down his language to his grandchild because he believes he is harming him by doing so -and this is the problem which has affected millions of people- or to what extend has someone been humillated so that he believes his language is worthless (as to not even talk to his daughters and sons as his elders did to him)".



The gathering of the information for the World Languages Review is based on the questionnaire. These means, thus, make up the cornerstone of the research and it depends on it, to a large extend, the quantity and the quality of information that will bring to the Review. We will contrast the mentioned information with that one which we have already obtained in books, research, papers and centres of research and specialised institutes.



The World Languages Review also counts on the external collaboration of diverse international experts on linguistics, sociolinguistics, psicolinguistics, in different areas of the world. These experts will contribute to the Review through their scientific writings on specific topics which will be published jointly with the research work.



The work team of the World Languages Review has celebrated conferences and meetings in different geographical settings so as to in situ gather experts on sociolinguistics, psicolinguistics and linguistics in their own linguistic area. Up to the date some international conferences and workshops have already been organised so as to specifically work on the World Languages Review together with the local experts:


  • COCHABAMBA (BOLIVIA), 'La situación Indoamericana', March 3-6, 1999.
  • OUAGADOUGOU (BURKINA FASO), 'Seminario Internacional LINGUAPAX', June 14-17, 1999
  • MYSORE (INDIA), 'Linguistic Heritage in India and Asia', March 6-10, 2000.
  • MELBOURNE (AUSTRALIA), will be held in March or April 2001.

The work team of the World Languages Review has joint varied international meetings such as:

  • 'Minority Languages in Russia: perspectives for development' jointly organised by Centro UNESCO Catalunya and AFORA, in Elista, Republic of Kalmykia, Russia, May 10-16, 1999.

The Review has been introduced in various events and conferences:

  • Minority Languages ('Eremu Urriko Hizkuntzei buruzko VII. Nazioarteko biltzarra', Bilbao, December 1-3, 1999)
  • Intercultural Bilingual Education ('IV Congreso Latinoamericano de Educación Intercultural Bilingüe', Asunción, Paraguay, November 6-9, 2000).
  • Indigenous Peoples ('Working group on Indigenous Peoples', U.N.O, Geneva, Switzerland, July 1999 and 2000). The project was introduced and the taking part in the Review by the different indigenous delegations was promoted.

The Technical Committee wants to thank you the colaboration of these people:

  • Vigdis Finbogadottir. Embajadora de buena voluntad de la UNESCO, ex presidenta del gobierno de Finlandia ; José Antonio Ardanza. Ex presidente del Gobierno Vasco, España ;Enric Masllorens. Presidente del Centro UNESCO de Cataluña, España; Raymond Renard. Cátedra UNESCO de planificación lingüística y didáctica de las lenguas (Universidad de Mons, Bélgica), Red universitaria Linguapax; Prof. Miquel Siguán. Universidad de Barcelona Barcelona, España;Prof. E. Annamalai. Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) Mysore, India ;Prof. Denis Cunningham. FIPLV Fédération Internationale des Professeurs de langues vivantes - Victoria, Australia; Prof. E. Nolue Emenanjo. National Institute for Nigerian Languages Aba, Nigeria ;Prof. Irina Khaleeva. Moscou State Linguistic University Moscú, Rusia ;Prof. Luis Enrique López. PROEIB ANDES Cochabamba, Bolivia ;Prof. Mohamed Miled. Université de Tunis 1 Tunis, Tunisia ;Prof. Juan Carlos Moreno. Universidad Autónoma Madrid Madrid, España ;Prof. Philippe N'Tahombaye. Université du Burundi Bujumbura, Burundi ;Prof. Irmela Neu-Altenheimer. Fachhochschule MunchenMunich, Alemania ;Prof. Joseph Poth. Director de la División de Lenguas, UNESCO París, Francia ;Prof. Ignace Sanwidi. Oficina de la UNESCO en Dakar Dakar, Senegal ;Prof. Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer. Université CarletonOttawa, Canadá




  • Anvita Abbi, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  • Xavier Albó, Peasant Research and Promotion Centre
  • Isaac Pianko Ashaninka and Joaquim Mana Kaxinawa, Acre Indigenous Teachers Association
  • Ayo Bamgbose, University of Ibadan
  • Wynford Bellin, Cardiff University
  • Jean-Paul Bronckart, University of Geneva
  • Bernard Comrie, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
  • Nancy C. Dorian, Bryn Mawr College
  • Francis Favereau, University of Rennes 2
  • Joshua Fishman, Jeshiva University
  • Barbara F. Grimes (Ed.) Ethnologue
  • Josiane Hamers, University of Laval
  • Sun Hongkai and Huang Xing, Minority Languages Academic Society of China
  • Joseba Intxausti
  • Irina Khaleeva, Moscow State Linguistics University
  • Omkar N. Koul and Debi Prasanna Pattanayak, Central Institute for Indian Languages
  • Multamia R.M.T. Lauder, University of Indonesia
  • Chura Mani Bandhu, University of Nepal
  • Grant D. McConnell, University of Laval
  • Bartomeu Melià, "Antonio Guasch" Centre for Paraguayan Studies
  • Juan Carlos Moreno, Autonomous University of Madrid, Peter Mühlhäusler, University of Adelaide
  • Raymond Renard, University of Mons-Hainaut
  • Suzanne Romaine, Merton College
  • Miquel Siguan, University of Barcelona
  • Miquel Strubell, Open University of Catalonia
  • Alexey Yeschenko, Pyatigorsk North-Caucasian Centre for Sociolinguistic Studies.


Technical Committee


  • Fèlix Martí. Comité Internacional Linguapax, Comité Consultivo de la UNESCO sobre el Pluralismo Lingüístico y la Educación Plurilingüe
  • Paul Ortega. UNESCO Etxea (Centro UNESCO del País Vasco)
  • Andoni Barreña. Universidad de Salamanca, Departamento de Lengua Española
  • Itziar Idiazabal. Universidad del País Vasco - Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea
  • Patxi Juaristi. Universidad del País Vasco - Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea
  • Carme Junyent. Universidad de Barcelona
  • Belen Uranga. Universidad del País Vasco - Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea


Technical secretariat