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speaking of languages… say again? February 22, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in communication, diversity, learn, life.
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Yesterday was the official launch of 2008 as the International Year of Languages 2008 - Languages MatterInternational Year of Languages. This coincides, appropriately enough, with my realization that if I don’t reach a level of relative competency in French this year, I’m going to… to… cry.

In regard to the international year, well, the UN has six official languages to juggle (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish). Its goal is to eliminate disparity between languages, “recognizing that genuine multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding” (from its press release). However, the members of the UN were also pushing for a related, but different, goal: the conservation and defence of the world’s languages.

As a longtime (on-again and off-again) French student, I can’t help but notice how French culture and French patriotism is wrapped up in the language lessons. As a Canadian who occasionally spends time in Montreal, I understand how language laws are being used to preserve this island of French language from the overwhelming English culture that closes in on all sides. As a Torontonian, I see how language groups tend to cluster in their own neighbourhoods, lending support and keeping culture alive in areas like Little Portugal, and Chinatown. I love hearing other languages, and experiencing a variety of people and cultures is energizing for me.

But let’s not look for unity in diversity, at least not if unity means assimilation. The UN may be able to eliminate disparity between languages, but I don’t think the rest of the world will be able to follow.

So, far, despite translation programs online, more than 90% of the world’s 6,000 languages are not represented on the internet, and there is a growing recognition that the internet is failing to reflect the linguistic and cultural diversity of billions of people around the world. What would it take to make the internet more accessible?

As for Canada, the whole question of multiculturalism should be seriously rethought. What should be a right for all people is the space to be separate, and a place to participate. Canada should ensure that people from all languages, cultures, and races have the community support and space to preserve their language and culture, and also be able to participate fully in society. That doesn’t mean that English or French would stop being the primary languages of business and government. But what could — and should — happen is that having a different language should never be seen as a handicap. People at international conferences are used to using translation equipment. I can picture that developing into a technological “babelfish” so that we can understand each other without having to resort to the use of only one language… What would it take to make this possible?

I need to say that I am a white middle-class anglophone, living in one of the richest countries in the world. And when I talk with people from other parts of the world, or with other cultural backgrounds, I am beginning to feel really lazy when I admit I don’t know any other languages. How insular is that! It’s time that we North Americans acted like citizens of the world, rather than expecting the citizens of the world to act like us. So, back to the French books… je voudrais parler Francais, je vais parler Francais…


Notes: Here’s another of the excellent Xkcd comics – and there I thought I was the only one thinking about this topic today! And thanks to the writer of Language Log for an analysis of the UN declaration.
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Related links:
A map of Canada’s endangered languages
A history of the language issue in Quebec
UNESCO IYL 2008 site

BBC: “Taught talk on net language issue”


1. Richard - February 26, 2008

A really brilliant website for learning Chinese is ChinesePod.com.

It’s all based around easy, fun and really useful podcasts, and there’s a great community of users who you can share questions/queries with. Best of all, you can access all the podcasts for free, although you can upgrade to get extra features as well.

When I first found it I though it would be one of those things I’d find really interesting for a couple of days, then I’d get bored because it was too hard. But now, eight months on, I’m enjoying learning Chinese more than ever, all thanks to chinesepod.com. Believe me, it’s a lot easier than you’d think. 🙂


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