Friday 18 May 2007

On the International Year of Languages

In a plenary session at the UN this week, the General Assembly proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Languages. The text affirms that this year will serve to promote unity through linguistic diversity. The Assembly called upon States and the Secretariat to work towards the conservation and defence of the world's languages. They also requested the Secretariat to appoint a coordinator for multilingualism. The idea of devoting a whole year to languages arose two years ago. It came up at the 33rd UNESCO General Conference, held in Paris at the end of 2005. It's great to see that it has been taken on board at the highest international level. There was a European Year of Languages in 2001, which did some fine things. I hope next year will do much more.

But do we in the UK have a government that is able to see anything else but the Olympics? I have my doubts. Already new arts development programmes in my area have come to a dead stop. Generating top-down interest in new language projects is going to be very hard, therefore. It's a shame, for it would be an ideal moment to resuscitate the proposal to build a 'House of Languages' in the UK - a project which nearly got off the ground in the late 90s, but which was killed off by another brilliant government idea, to build a Millennium Dome.

I think it will be up to individuals and individual institutions to do something. My own first priority will be to try to find sponsorship to get a full production of 'Living On' (see earlier posts) on stage next year. But I'm sure all kinds of unpredictable things will crop up. That's what happened in 2001, anyway.

Getting the news out is the first step. The UN has never been very good at publicising its 'years'. Hence this post.


Don said...

With the New Year almost here, I'm not seeing as much activity on IYL as with the other two "Years" proclaimed for 2008 by the UN (Planet Earth and the Potato).

I'm wondering if we shouldn't try to link together - at least informally - various organizations and prominent individuals worldwide who are interested in IYL, in order to give a higher profile to "civil society" etc. support & activities. This would ultimately be in collaboration with UNESCO, of course, but with its own collective identity. And it could continue to be useful in supporting other initiatives, such as the annual International Mother Language Day. I'm checking out some possibilities.

DC said...

And it's also the Year of the Reef and the Year of Sanitation. There is a lot of competition about, indeed. I've written up my views on how to publicise our Year more in a paper I gave to a UNESCOCat forum in Barcelona on Languages Day earlier this year - it's downloadable on my website: 'What do we do with an International Year of Languages'. Any initiatives of the kind you mention are worthwhile, I think.

Don said...

I'm reading over your paper and very glad you have weighed in on the subject of how best to approach this (before almost everyone else). I agree completely about linking with other "Years." Year of Planet Earth (IYPE) in particular, given the linguistic & biodiversity connections you mention, but also in narrow terms of logistics, the fact that IYPE will have its formal launch at UNESCO in Paris the week before IMLD. How can we bridge the two symbolically in Paris with all that that could mean in terms publicity and prompting thinking?

In the meantime I've been writing people. For what it's worth, I set up a Facebook group and started a Wikipedia article - small measures but worthwhile.

BTW, there was also a Year of African Languages in 2006, but I think it did not have enough resources to make the impact.

DC said...

Well done. Word of - I was going to say 'mouth', but that doesn't seem appropriate for Wiki, Facebook, et al, but I can't think of an appropriate alternative - click, maybe? - is probably one of the most fruitful ways of spreading this kind of news. To get something moving, though, we need to prompt powerful people - who may of course have initiatives in mind anyway. Two come to mind: Rieks Smeets (Intangible Heritage Section at UNESCO) and Vigdis Finnbogadottir (UNESCO goodwill ambassador for languages).

The link between Earth and Language is rhetorically very powerful. As I say in the paper, Earth focuses us on existence; Language focuses us on co-existence.