Conflicts and migration destroying languages: Unesco

Dubai: Hundreds of languages and dialects around the world are threatened to disappear because of enforced relocation, illiteracy and migration, a Unesco official said.

George Papagiannis, Chief of Media Services Section, told Gulf News nearly 2,680 language and dialects are in danger today, according to the assessment of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

Almost half of the globe’s 6,700 languages and dialects are disappearing because people stopped using them, he explained.

“There are many reasons for people stop using their languages. This includes enforced relocation, educational disadvantage or illiteracy, migration, and other manifestations eventually leading to the possibility of a culture or language being weakened almost to the point of disappearance.”

“In practical terms, parents and elders may no longer pass on languages to their children and languages fall out of daily use,” Papagiannis said.

According to Unesco, a language or dialect is disappearing every two weeks.


A series of decisions and actions can be taken to stop the destruction of languages and preserve them, said Unesco official.

“Each case is different. In general, there is an urgent need for language documentation, new policy initiatives and development of new materials to enhance the vitality of these languages and to encourage global linguistic diversity,” said Papagiannis in a statement.

 Each language represents a unique system and framework for understanding the world. Speaking and reading in mother language ensure the inter-generational transmission of language.

There is a need to promote further using the languages “in danger”, and apply language technologies and other communication and information means, he explained.

“Each language represents a unique system and framework for understanding the world. Speaking and reading in mother language ensure the inter-generational transmission of language and has a strong impact on personal, social and cultural identity. Through languages, people not only embed their history, traditions, memory, traditional knowledge, unique modes of thinking, meaning and expression, but more importantly construct their future,” said Papagiannis. On the other hand, languages such as English, Chinese, Spanish and Arabic, have become the dominant languages because increasing number of people are speaking one or more of those languages.

Unesco has been regularly issuing Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Since its first edition in 1996, several editions had been released. As part of this process, the UN organisation is issuing a language vitality index which contains assessment criteria in order to assess different languages and different levels of endangerment.

The Unesco’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger, according to Papagiannis, is a “unique global platform for powerful exchange, creative involvement and active participation of a diverse range of learners, internet users and professional communities around the world”. It is also working as “an online tool for interacting with a fully expanded database on all of the world’s languages, incorporating data and other information.”

“Safe languages”, which is spoken by all generations and uninterrupted are not included in the Atlas.

How languages are classified

Vulnerable is when children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains, such as homes.

Examples: South Italian language with a number of speakers of 7.5 million.

Q’eqchi in Guatemala, with a number of speakers of 716,101

Basque (spoken in Basque country, which is a region linking westernmost Pyrenees in adjacent parts of northern Spain and southwestern France), where the number of speakers are 660,000.

Mayoruna in Peru, which is also called the Matsés language. It is an indigenous language of the Peruvian and Brazilian Amazon basin, which belongs to the Panoan language family. It is spoken by 2,500 people.

Definitely endangered is when children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home

Examples: Tamasheq, which is a variant of the Tuareg language, is spoken by the Tuareg people, principally in the Timbuktu area.

Ligurian, which is a Gallo-Italic language spoken in Linguria in northern Italy, by around a million people.

Newar, which is a Sino-Tibetan language spoken by the Newar people in Nepal Mandala, which consists of the Kathmandu Valley and surrounding regions in Nepal. Today, 824,458 people speak it.

Mang in China, which is spoken by 2,300 people.

Severely endangered is when a language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves

Examples: Limousin, which is a dialect of the Occitan language that is spoken in the several parts in southwest France. It is spoken by 400,000 people.

Gallo, a regional language of France, is spoken by 200,000 people.

Sierra Totonac, a Native American language in Puebla and Veracruz, Mexico, is spoken by 118, 367 people.

Northern Mansi is spoken in Russia by 2,756 people.

Critically endangered is when the language or the dialect is spoken by grandparents or older, and they speak it partially and infrequently.

Examples: Andoa is an extinct Zaparoan language of Peru (only two people speak it, according to Unesco)

Sambe, a language in Nigeria. Only one person speaks it

Luri, a western Iranian language. Only one person speaks it today.

Tuscarora, a North Iroquoian language spoken in southern Ontario in Canada, and parts of the US. Only three people speak it now.

Extinct is when no speakers of a language are left

Examples: Tamazight, a Berber language of the Afro-Asiatic language family. According to Unesco there are 1,637 speakers of the language in the Atlas Mountains of Central Morocco, and some smaller emigrant communities in other parts of the world.

Aasax, which was spoken by the Asa people of Tanzania.

Uru languagewas spoken by the Uru people.

Karaim, in Crimea, is also spoken in Lithuania, Poland, and in Galicia

Homa is an extinct South Sudanese Bantu language of uncertain affiliation.

Residents weigh in on language

People discuss impact of conflict, migration and relocation on language and dialect

“I think conflict, migration and relocation definitely has an effect on language and dialect. People who are forced to leave their country focus on communication with people in that society and therefore alter their dialect or learn a new language to fit in. If the same language is spoken in the country, the dialect might be completely different. A person in that situation will then begin to adopt the common dialect in that situation to be understood, and eventually replace or phase out their own. This has happened to me living here in the UAE, where I prefer to use a Levant dialect of Arabic instead of my Yemeni accent in order to blend in professionally and socially.”

Layan Samir | Yemeni expat


“I agree. Time is changing our languages and dialects because of social media and technology. More and more people, even in schools, focus more on teaching foreign languages like French, English, and Spanish. Everything is in English and interest in Arabic is waning. The same is true even with my kids. The good thing is that the UAE leadership is encouraging people to read in Arabic and use the Emirati dialect, which is influenced by many languages. So many of the words in the Emirati dialect have changed with time, but the UAE is doing its best to preserve it. Mothers are trying their best to keep their families engaged in this dialect because if they don’t practise it, they won’t be able to speak it.”

Shuaa Zainal | Emirati who teaches the Emirati dialect


“I am a US citizen who was born in Venezuela and raised in Los Angeles. My mother tongue is Spanish. My husband is American so I speak English at home, but whenever I meet my Latino friends and people from the Venezuelan community in Abu Dhabi, I talk to them in Spanish. Relocation has limited the usage of my mother tongue and we tend to forget some phrases and words if we speak a language occasionally. We use English everywhere in the UAE, but when I happen to be in the US, I get more access to communities where I can use Spanish because of a large chunk of Spanish-speaking people in the US.”

Wilma Burton | American TV producer and painter in Abu Dhabi


“It is unfortunate that some languages are dying. That means the world is losing part of its culture and heritage and more should be done by all nations to stop this. Arabic is my mother tongue. I’m fluent in it and plan to pass it on to my children. However, I often worry about the future of our language since English is taking over as the official language of popular culture. I definitely worry about the young generation in the Middle East not learning or using my mother tongue, especially that most of the games on the iPad these days are in English. There are Arabic ones of course but they’re not as dynamic and Arabic is not picking up fast enough in that field.”

Yasmine Al Farra | Jordanian media expert

— Compiled by Janice Ponce de Leon, Jumana Khamis and
Anwar Ahmad, Staff Reporters and Binsal Abdul Kader, Senior Reporter

Share This Post