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One World, Many Voices

Of the more than 7,000 languages spoken in the world today—many of them unrecorded—up to half may disappear in this century. As languages vanish, communities lose a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human mind.

The decline of linguistic and cultural diversity is a real and urgent issue. Humanity is facing a massive extinction, languages are disappearing at an unprecedented pace, and linguists predict that 50-90% of the world’s languages will disappear by the end of the century.

In the 90s, UNESCO published the Red Book of Endangered Languages, a list of the world’s endangered languages, which was later replaced by the Atlas of the World’s languages in danger.

The One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage Festival program highlighted language diversity as a vital part of our human heritage. Cultural experts from communities around the world joined us to demonstrate how their ancestral tongues embody cultural knowledge, identity, values, technologies, and arts.

Photo: The Enduring Voices team in Hong Village, Arunachal Pradesh, IndiaFestival visitors interacted with Kalmyk epic singers and Tuvan stone carvers from Russia, Koro rice farmers from India, Passamaquoddy basketmakers from Maine, Kallawaya medicinal healers and textile artists from Bolivia, Garifuna drummers and dancers from Los Angeles and New York, and many others.

Another important initiative is National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project, conducted in collaboration with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages,which strives to preserve endangered languages by identifying language hotspots, and documenting the languages and cultures within them. In some cases, technology can also be useful to preserve culture and languages.

The Talking Dictionaries, for instance, is an online database of audio recordings of native speakers pronouncing words and sentences. According to the linguist David Harrison, “Endangered language communities are adopting digital technology to aid their survival and to make their voices heard around the world. This is a positive effect of globalization”.

Onether very ambitious projects on this matter is the Rosetta Project, a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to create a modern version of the historic Rosetta Stone. The project is run by the Long Now Foundation, with the aim of creating a permanent archive of the languages in danger of extincion.

When a language disappears, unique ways of knowing, understanding, and experiencing the world are lost forever. The expert culture bearers who participated in the One World, Many Voices program richly illustrated these different ways of knowing and showed how cultural and language diversity enrich the world.

Language is the means by which we pass on our ideas, knowledge, and identity from one generation to the next. But of the seven thousand languages currently spoken, it is expected that 50% will not survive the turn of the century and when  the last speaker of a language dies, we lose the centuries of knowledge and traditions that have helped shaping who we are.

Respecting linguistic diversity means respecting a human right. Yet minority languages remain marginalized, and the precious immaterial human cultural heritage risks to be forever lost and forgotten.