May 21, 2007

U.N. declares 2008 International Year of Languages

On Friday the UN declared 2008 the International Year of Languages; here's the official press release. I got it via a post from Wayne Leman on the ILAT list; he had learned of it on the Eurolang website.

There's a noticeable difference in focus between the UN press release and the Eurolang article. The press release is all about multilingualism, eliminating disparities in the use of the UN's six official languages, and the need to provide UN services (including peacekeeping) in local languages, while the Eurolang article is more about protecting and conserving endangered languages.

Here's the first chunk of the press release:

The General Assembly this afternoon, recognizing that genuine multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding, proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Languages. ...The Assembly, also recognizing that the United Nations pursues multilingualism as a means of promoting, protecting and preserving diversity of languages and cultures globally, emphasized the paramount importance of the equality of the Organization's six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish).... Further, the Assembly emphasized the importance of making appropriate use of all the official languages in all the activities of the Department of Public Information, with the aim of eliminating the disparity between the use of English and the use of the five other official languages.
The press release focusses on mulitlingualism as a means of facilitating communication between peoples -- "genuine multilingualism promotes [unity in diversity] and [international understanding]".

The Eurolang article, on the other hand, quoting the floor speeches touching on protecting and preserving minority and endangered languages, reports that

The Assembly called upon States and the Secretariat to work towards the conservation and defence of the world's languages.
I felt there was a kind of disconnect between these two descriptions of the proceedings. This disconnect is reflected in Eurolang article, which, apparently conflating the 'unity through multilingualism' part and the 'protect diversity' part, states that the UN "will aim to promote unity through linguistic diversity," which surely is a bit of an odd thing to say. Linguistic diversity is a Good Thing, but it's hardly in principle unifying!

Qua linguist, I can get 100% behind both these goals, both (a) promoting multilingualism in national/majority languages particularly with a view toward fostering international understanding, and (b) protecting and revitalizing endangered minority languages. These goals are certainly not mutually exclusive, but they're really not the same.

The UN seems to think they are, though. This is implied in the press release clause about how "the United Nations pursues multilingualism as a means of promoting, protecting and preserving diversity of languages and cultures globally". This seems to me to be like promoting the use of rice, potatoes, wheat and corn as a means of promoting and preserving diversity of staple crops globally.

When I went to look at the actual text of the resolution, the sense of disconnect persisted. The bulk of the resolution -- OPs 2 through 22 -- have to do with translation services and intra-UN concerns about the use of the six official languages. The last bit -- OPs 23-25 -- have to do with promoting linguistic diversity and preserving endangered languages.

From those last few paras, though, I did learn that February 21 is "International Mother Language Day", which I didn't know (though it hasn't escaped the collective eagle eye of us Loggers, so I ought to've) and that on March 18th of this year, UNESCO's "Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions" came into force. All good.

International Mother Language Day is in my calendar now. We'll officially celebrate it from here on out with a brunch at the Plaza featuring finger foods from around the world and a keynote address on the grammatical properties and current usage context of a featured endangered language from an expert speaker or fieldworker. Anyone who can convincingly greet the bartender in an endangered language gets a free drink.

Posted by Heidi Harley at May 21, 2007 04:51 PM