Why at all would we want to safeguard cultural and linguistic diversity you may wish to ask, when we talk so much about the global citizen?
I will take you on a brief journey of thoughts. More than ever, Article 55 of the United Nations Charter, signed 72 years ago, was written with much foresight. By recognizing that international cultural cooperation, as well as universal respect for human rights without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion, are conditions necessary for well-being for all and friendly relations among nations, the Article laid the groundwork for cultural and linguistic diversity.
More recently, target 4.7 of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, on inclusive and equitable quality education, has addressed promotion of sustainable development in education for global citizenship and appreciation for cultural diversity. As we go forward, putting the provisions of Article 55 and SDG 4 into practice will be central to maintaining peace, enhancing governance, respecting human rights, supporting sustainable development and ensuring that no one is left behind.
Language and culture are indeed key components of our identities and bind communities and nations together. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines language as “a system of conventional spoken, manual, or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves. The functions of language include communication, the expression of identity, play, imaginative expression, and emotional release”.1
Language and culture are intricately related and dependant on each other, shaping personalities and serving as repositories of knowledge. They contribute to how we see ourselves and can determine with what groups we identify.
We live in a world where 96 per cent of the estimated 6,909 languages recorded are spoken by only 4 per cent of the world’s population.2 Moreover, about 6 per cent of languages have more than 1 million speakers and collectively account for an estimated 94 per cent of the world population. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that more than half of the world’s languages are in danger of disappearing.
Recent events have shown a renewed search for identity—a search for belonging, anxieties over loss of identity, and the pursuit of meaning in a globalized setting where too many have been left behind.
These are vital questions of our time and certainly of our futures, as Article 55 and SDG 4 recognize. For development to be truly sustainable, language and culture must be granted full attention to address these mounting anxieties and search for belonging, which are core elements of sustainability.
The Evenki poet Alitet Nemtushkin captures these sentiments of world communities whose languages, together with a sense of identity and belonging, are fast disappearing:
If I forget my native speech,
And the songs that my people sing
What use are my eyes and ears?
What use is my mouth?
If I forget the smell of the earth
And do not serve it well
What use are my hands?
Why am I living in the world?
How can I believe the foolish idea
That my language is weak and poor
If my mother’s last words
were in Evenki?
As High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, of which there are 91, I am excited by the fact that these three groups of countries are home to the most diverse languages and cultures in the world, but I’m also concerned because these languages are among the most endangered. Papua New Guinea, a small island developing State, records some 840 languages, twice the number of languages spoken across Europe.3 In the Pacific, a region with some 1,300 languages, each language is spoken by just 1,000 people on average. Across Africa, more than 2,000 languages are spoken, accounting for around 30 per cent of the world’s languages. Yet again sub-Saharan Africa is among the areas of the world with the most endangered languages. This has ramifications beyond the popular understanding of language and culture. It is not merely an issue of preserving a language and culture as both are much more than artefacts.
As UNESCO has shown in studies, there is a strong link between biodiversity and linguistic diversity. Local and indigenous communities have elaborated complex classification systems for the natural world, reflecting their deep understanding of the environment they live with. This ranges from pertinent information about plant growth, to nutrients and the well-being of oceans, and thus enables the functioning of fragile yet life-defining ecosystems.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have witnessed an unprecedented mixing of languages and cultures through urbanization, a rapid rise in international tourism and mass migration. This has indeed created great fusions of cultures in urban spaces and across nations and continents. Yet, these processes have too often created a sense of alienation for those left behind and for the new arrivals, while for others this has spread a sense of anxiety over their loss of identity.
At the same time, the advent and spread of information and communications technology (ICT) has created new forms of communication, such as borderless virtual communication conducted in a few predominant languages, often through communication with signs or symbols (emoji), photos (Instagram, Pinterest) and via abbreviated and condensed language (Twitter).
These developments are two-sided. Those with access to ICT and language mastery live in a borderless world, while those denied access are excluded and marginalized. They feel that their very being, their own language and culture are in the process of disappearing. Beyond trade and other such metrics, there are numerous positive aspects of bringing humanity together, but we must ensure that this is not at the expense of one’s identity or cultural and linguistic diversity. We must ensure that these gains are not just for the fortunate few, while the rest of humanity is excluded.
Beyond giving us the life-critical sense of identity and belonging, language and culture are truly the salt of our earth. Isn’t it this very diversity that drives trade and tourism?
Since the year 2000, International Mother Language Day has been observed annually on 21 February with the aim of promoting linguistic and cultural diversity, and multilingualism. In 2017 we celebrated the theme “Towards Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education”.
In 2007 the United Nations General Assembly called on all Member States “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”.4 Furthermore, the year 2008 was proclaimed as the International Year of Languages and we are seeing more concerted efforts worldwide to preserve and promote multiculturalism and multilingualism.
Such strong claims for identity and a sense of belonging are signs that we must reverse the decline in cultural and linguistic diversity. This will require, among other things, an environment in which young people are taught and exposed to their mother tongue while at the same time also having the opportunity to learn other local and foreign languages.
This typically means favourable national policies which protect minority languages and are supportive of education systems that encourage quality mother tongue instruction. This will help countries and communities to make progress in achieving the ambitions of Article 55 and SDG 4. This also means that linguists and researchers, alongside local communities, have a critical role to play in documenting and preserving languages that are either on the brink of extinction or are in rapid decline.
Humanity has always had to confront evolutionary challenges. It is incumbent on us, however, to lead change with vision, and manage challenges by ensuring that we safeguard the treasure of our cultural identity and linguistic diversity. Our increasingly interconnected world brings about the potential for meaningful intercultural dialogue and exchanges. Let us value, invest in and leverage diversity to serve as a bridge between cultures. Let us be global citizens capable of harmony because we are enriched by local diversity. The challenge on our shared planet is to create balance between the urgent need to leverage cultural and linguistic diversity to enhance intercultural dialogue and global understanding, without destroying our identity and our sense of belonging.
This is a task for all of us, from the individual to the community level to civil society, governments and international organizations. The United Nations always has and always will stand for the forging of partnerships that allow culture and language to flourish and ensure a future of dignity for all.
- David Crystal and Robert Henry Robins, “Language”, in Encyclopedia Britannica Online, e-book (Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., n.d.). Available from https://www.britannica.com/topic/language (accessed 06 December 2017).
- Tove Skutnabb–Kangas, Linguistic Genocide in Education–Or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? (Mahwah, NJ and London, UK, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 2000 [South Asian updated edition: Delhi, Orient BlackSwan, 2008.]), quoted in Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Robert Phillipson, “The global politics of language: markets, maintenance, marginalization, or murder?”, in The Handbook of Language and Globalization, Nickolas Coupland, ed. (Malden, Mass., Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), p. 77.
- Gary F. Simons and Charles D. Fennig, eds., Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 20th ed. (Dallas, Texas, SIL International, 2017), e-book. Available from https://www.ethnologue.com/.