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International Mother Language Day 2017 & the Linguapax Prize

The 18th annual International Mother Language Day (IMLD), observed today (21 February 2017), has as its theme, “Towards Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education,” which seems to carry on the focus on language in education from last year (presumably still with an eye on Sustainable Development Goal #4).

The definition of multilingual education given on UNESCO’s IMLD page is worth copying here…

Multilingual education facilitates access to education while promoting equity for populations speaking minority and/or indigenous languages, especially girls and women:     

  • It emphasizes the quality of teaching and learning with a focus on understanding and creativity;
  • It reinforces the cognitive aspect of learning by ensuring the direct application of learning outcomes to the learner’s life through the mother tongue;
  • It enhances dialogue and interaction between learner and teacher by allowing genuine communication from the beginning;
  • It facilitates participation and action in society and gives access to new knowledge and cultural expressions, thus ensuring a harmonious interaction between the global and the local.

Linguapax Prize

This year’s Linguapax Prize, announced today (as it is annually, on IMLD), was awarded to Dr. Matthias Brenzinger, a German linguist specializing in African languages (notably non-Bantu click languages) and endangered languages, who is currently at the University of Cape Town and heads the Centre for African Linguistic Diversity (CALDi), which he founded. Dr. Brenzinger has also worked in Japan.


Two language museums in Washington

PW logoOn the eve of International Mother Language Day (IMLD), here’s a quick look at the news that the Washington, DC area will get a second museum dedicated to languages: Planet Word Museum. This project began several years ago, based on the vision of Ann B. Friedman, a philanthropist and former reading instructor, and was incorporated in 2013 as the Museum of Language Arts, Inc. On 25 January 2017, the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development announced an agreement by which (pending DC Council approval) Planet Word and its partners will convert an old landmark school building into a museum space. Opening is planned for 2019.

PW logoThe first museum in this genre in the DC area, and in the entire United States, is the National Museum of Language (NML), which despite the name is also a private non-profit venture. Its origins go back to Dr. Amelia C. Murdoch and a “group of expert linguists, language specialists, and language enthusiasts” in 1971, but it wasn’t until 37 years later that a small museum space was opened in College Park, Maryland (Multidisciplinary Perspectives featured an article about their opening in 2008). Unfortunately, the recurring cost of the museum space turned out to be too high to maintain, so in 2014, NML closed its permanent exhibit and shifted to a strategy of moveable exhibits, an enhanced online presence, and other activities.

A tale of 2 museums

The first question that comes to mind on learning of the new language museum project in this metro area, is whether it and the older one are in communication. The answer, according to NML president Dr. Jill Robbins, is yes.

A second question or set of questions has to do with the relationship between the two – both in terms of missions (similarities, differences, complementarities), and in terms of practical links (such as connections among people working on the two different projects). These seem to me to be harder to answer. In part that is because one is new and the other still relatively young. And there are other differences between the two that would figure in any collaboration.

In terms of their respective missions, my impression is that NML is somewhat more focused on aspects of language diversity or “unity in diversity” (the themes of the museum include “universal aspects of language,” “language in society,” and “languages of the world”). Among various exhibits, they have done some interesting work presenting dialect research in the US, for example. From NML’s mission statement:

Our mission is to inspire an appreciation for the magic and beauty of language. We seek to lead our visitors to their personal discoveries of language and languages. …

My impression is that Planet Word is somewhat more concerned with language arts (note the incorporated name mentioned above) and applied linguistics. Literacy figures as “The Big Issue” on their “About” page. We can expect more details as the project develops, but in the meantime, an article in Chronicle of Higher Education by Planet Word board member Prof. Anne Curzan offers some insights into their thinking. Planet Word’s vision (from the About page):

Language is what makes us human. From earliest childhood we weave our words into speech to communicate. At Planet Word we inspire and renew a love of words and language through unique, immersive learning experiences.

On the organizational level, there are some obvious differences. For example, Planet Word is clearly able to access funding at a level several orders of magnitude above what NML has ever obtained. It also has a much larger board with a wider geographic and institutional representation than the smaller NML has.

On the other hand, NML has a significant experience with the practicalities of running a language museum – albeit on a smaller scale than Planet Word evidently aspires to – and in developing relations with educators and institutions in its vicinity and more widely. The latter include, for example being a founding member of the International Network of Language Museums (INLM; see also addendum, below), participating in events such as the IMLD 2013 celebration at the Bangladesh embassy in Washington, DC, and having a wall exhibit – about American lexicographer Noah Webster – on display at the Noah Webster House in West Hartford, Connecticut.

From the descriptions, however, it seems that Planet Word is modeling itself on certain larger museums – the National Museum of Mathematics in New York was mentioned in one article. Also, Planet Word is expected to have a major impact on development of its immediate neighborhood (see article in City Lab, which includes a comparison with the National Building Museum in DC) – not a role that NML has had to play.

All that said, these two language museums do occupy much of the same terrain even as their emphases and some of their angles may differ. The field of study of language(s) and linguistics after all is broad, and there are diverse approaches to organizing museums. So basically, it’s no surprise that “language museum” can mean different things.

A question at this point is what kind of collaboration might be possible and make sense from the points of view of NML and Planet Word, and also for the public, for whom even one language museum is still a novelty.

We’ll see how this develops, but it will be interesting to see an interview of Ms. Friedman that I am told is planned for publication on the NML website. One question I’d like to ask of both efforts is how they would celebrate IMLD, an annual observance that is not that well known in the US.

Addendum (Feb. 21)

Thanks to NML’s Dr. Robbins for feedback on this post as originally published, leading to some corrections to copy and also a clarification on her institution’s range of activity (which I further expanded on). A key element in that range is the INLM (a list of the members of which appears in an NML blog post).

In the interests of economy, I did not get into the subject of language museums worldwide in this post, even though they figured prominently in my compilation of resources on the International Year of Languages 2008. The global dimension of this class of museums (within the larger class of “locations” about language, to use David Crystal‘s term from “LADDA“) is to a certain extent unavoidable (some articles about Planet Word have mentioned the Mundolingua in Paris, for example), but important enough to merit a separate discussion.


WAWDT: USDA, animal welfare, and responses

On February 3, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) abruptly removed from its website access to inspection reports and other information on animal welfare, citing a review process. This is the kind of action about which I’m asking “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT).

SDG logoAt issue, according to Science, are “tens of thousands of reports that document the numbers of animals kept by research labs, companies, zoos, circuses, and animal transporters—and whether those animals are being treated humanely under the Animal Welfare Act“,” as well as “inspection reports under the Horse Protection Act.” National Geographic has more on why these reports are important. This information had been accessible on the website maintained by the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

The USDA’s action elicited a “swift” backlash, and restoration of a small number of the documents two weeks later. There is also a private effort to collect and publish all the removed information.

Although USDA says the review process leading to removal of the information was started last year, and there is speculation that a lawsuit by some horse trainers catalyzed the move, this action does seem to confirm fears about such removal of access to data and information long made available to the public by the Federal government.

Personally, when I heard this story it was hard to see an angle from which one could give USDA the benefit of the doubt. Such a vast amount of documents (from almost 8000 facilities) simply removed from view, when there may have been issues of legal or other concern relating to only a handful. From the descriptions, it seems the information was (is) a very important part of assuring humane treatment of animals in diverse contexts where they are used commercially or for research.

Data copying efforts

The abovementioned effort to copy (and at this point retrieve) and publish (on the MemoryHole site) the information deleted by APHIS is part of a larger semi-organized movement begun before the new US administration took office last month to copy data and other information from government websites. A major concern has been climate data, with DataRefuge site evidently playing a coordinating role (see also the presentation on PPEH Lab‘s site).

Other concerns regarding data

In addition to loss of access to data, there is a longer term concern, per FiveThirtyEight, that “the the integrity of U.S. government data could be compromised more subtly and more systematically over the next four years.”



“Security triangle” without the triangle

Having in the previous posting referenced the security triangle used in development and humanitarian work, I thought it would be worth taking another look at the concept. As I mentioned, the three elements in this model are (with brief definitions I adapted from other sources):

  • Acceptance: Reduce the threat by fostering acceptance and positive image in the community.
  • Protection: Reduce the risk (but not the threat) by addressing vulnerabilities – hardening the target.
  • Deterrence: Counter the threat through reliance on appropriate and legitimate force.

As I also mentioned, this model represented new thinking when it came onto the scene around the turn of the millennium – a way to reframe the traditional approach or posture of aid work – “acceptance” (and a range of positive human and community relations) – and bring in practical dimensions that were always in the background but imposing themselves to varying degrees in different work environments – “protection” (which may previously be limited to bars on the windows and locking doors to deter theives) and “deterrence” (a last resort).

Having been away from scenarios where this model was discussed, I hadn’t been aware that the triangle itself, as a way of presenting these 3 factors – which are still the basis of discussion for security in aid work – was downplayed. “Downplayed” is my term reading the Humanitarian Practice Network’s (HPN) 2010 revised edition of the Operational Security Management in Violent Environments (GPR8). HPN’s webpage about the report actually uses the word “abandoned.”

So what was the problem?

The below diagram, from a 2011 post entitled “SSOS – A Concept to Mitigate the NGO Security Dilemma” illustrates, I think, the kind of issue that GPR8 had with the triangle – that is seeing the 3 key factors in security in terms of trade-offs.

The details of the SSOS approach illustrated in the diagram are not the issue – the question is whether and to what degree a security strategy sits in one place or can shift reliance on the different factors as implied by this kind of diagram. Which might be compared to a very different use of a triangle with three elements that indeed are in trade-off relationships: a soil texture diagram:

Sand, clay, and silt are physical substances in soil that exist in different proportions with the result being different soil textures (there are more complicated versions of this diagram). So you can have a soil like sandy clay loam, which apparently has 74-80% sand and 20-35% clay. But an analogous breakdown of emphases on different security factors would be hard to imagine (protectiony acceptance safety?).

So the way I understand the current GPR8 thinking, one can accent more than one factor in different ways at the same time. Can one emphasize acceptance in a security strategy while approaching protection in a way that is effective, but relatively unobtrusive from the community point of view?

Even the SSOS example I cite can be interpreted in that way when it suggests using technology in the form of a “low profile tracking device” with a vehicle or team to effectively bring deterrence into the equation while not displaying it in the immediate picture.

In other words, the three elements of a security strategy are not mutually exclusive, as a 2015 discussion of “Acceptance strategies in conflict” also points out.

It is also worth reiterating GPR8’s observation mentioned in the previous post that acceptance turns out to be the most important factor in security for development and humanitarian work, even as protection and deterrence are recognized as also being essential.


WAWDT: The “Muslim ban” breaks the “security triangle”

Certainly the biggest “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT) policy decision among many under the new administration so far is Executive Order (EO) 13769, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” but widely known as the “Muslim ban.” (The latter term is controversial, but seems appropriate based on its perceived effect, background, related discussions, and related statements.)

A lot has been written about this issue, and the courts have so far examined the several problems with this EO, so there is no need for me to recapitulate all the arguments. On the whole, however, it does seem to me that the EO does nothing beyond what current exhaustive vetting procedures already do to achieve its stated premise – keeping America safer. And furthermore, it seems that among its many secondary effects may very well be dynamics making this country and the world less safe. As such it will certainly put Americans overseas, as well as people associated with the US in other countries, at risk. We’ve already heard of impact on working relations of US troops with Iraqi military, and there is the obvious dilemma presented to people who have worked with Americans as interpreters.

The “security triangle”

Part of the reason this EO cannot achieve its ostensible aim of greater safety, and may actually accomplish the opposite, is that it effectively  knocks out one corner of the so-called “security triangle”: acceptance. The security triangle is a concept based on recognition that “security” has several dimensions, and highlights three complementary factors:

  • Acceptance: Reduce the threat by fostering acceptance and positive image in the community.
  • Protection: Reduce the risk (but not the threat) by addressing vulnerabilities – hardening the target.
  • Deterrence: Counter the threat through reliance on appropriate and legitimate force.

With this EO, the administration seems to be putting all its chips on protection, supported by deterrence, no matter what the cost in terms of diminished acceptance. That is, not reducing the threat worldwide, while trying to reduce exposure to potential risk by keeping broad demographics (country, religion) out of the US, which in turn may actually augment and energize the threat.

The security triangle model emerged from the international humanitarian community around 2000,1 but I would argue that it is more broadly applicable to national security concerns in the context of terrorism and so-called asymmetrical conflict. Keep in mind that many humanitarian operations are conducted in environments that are unstable or involve conflict, and attacks on humanitarian workers have become more frequent. So this model, and identification of its three elements, comes out of experience.

The triangle itself apparently caused confusion as some saw it as asking organizations situate themselves in relation to the three elements (as if a trade-off).2 The revised edition of Operational Security Management in Violent Environments (GPR8) downplayed the triangle, but still discussed its three elements at length.3 The main point therefore remains, and that is that a combination of approaches addressing acceptance, protection, and deterrence, is essential to assuring safety and security, while at the same time maintaining the good relations essential to effective work in these contexts. The exact mix will depend on the situation, but it is interesting that 2010 GPR8 notes that despite increased security risks in many parts of the world, acceptance turns out to be the most important factor:

Given their mission and values, aid organisations find acceptance by far the most appealing security strategy. Indeed, acceptance can and should be the foundation of all security strategies. But acceptance will not be effective against all threats. (GPR8, p. 56)

So what are the implications of all this for national policies that affect international relations?

Acceptance & “soft power”

Historically, the US government has had a whole range of messages, initiatives, and structures from “winning hearts and minds” to public diplomacy, and from USAID’s clasped hands to Peace Corps, aimed in different ways at cultivating positive images of the country. These arguably are analogous to the strategic concern of development and humanitarian organizations with “acceptance” in communities where they work. Scaling up to the level of the international system is tricky, but the US is a member of the community of nations, and its actions can affect how it is “accepted” by other nations and most importantly for this discussion, their populations.

The range of messages mentioned above also fit under the cultivation of “soft power” – “the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion.” And indeed, at least one article in the wake of EO 13769 asks how the Muslim ban might broadly undercut American soft power. One might tentatively consider “acceptance,” an element of a security strategy, as being a benefit of soft power. That would mean a diminishing of soft power would be reflected in lower acceptance and higher threat levels.

Pres. Trump has spoken on several occasions about wanting as immigrants “people who love us….” Well such love doesn’t just happen, and it can be lost through accumulation of negative perceptions. Policy decisions that in effect tell citizens of whole countries or members of a religion that they are not wanted (even if “temporarily”) are going to have a negative effect on love, acceptance, soft power, and ultimately security (on top of legal and moral questions about such measures). And all that is, or at least was, avoidable.

Better to have a policy begins with recognizing the strengths of existing practice, then carefully evaluates what gaps if any may exist, reviews these and measures to address them with appropriate experts in and out of government, and finally plans how to implement the measures with attention to avoiding unwanted negative secondary effects.

(See “Security triangle” without the triangle, for more on acceptance-protection-deterrence.)

1. It appeared for instance in the first edition of Operational Security Management in Violent  Environments: A Field Manual for Aid Agencies (Good Practice Review 8, Humanitarian Practice Network, ODI, 2000; authored by Koenraad Van Brabant; p. 10). Daniel Paul’s article, “The Relevance of the Security Triangle: An Examination of Literature on Perspectives of Humanitarian Security,” cites some other literature.
2. This was the impression I had when I first learned of the security triangle in the early 2000s while on the Peace Corps staff in Niger. Peace Corps, like most development organizations, had traditionally relied primarily on acceptance, although without putting that label on it. But the changing environment worldwide required attention to protection (deterrence, beyond normal police protection, would in my opinion undermine the whole purpose).
3. Operational Security Management in Violent Environments (Good Practice Review 8 [revised edition], Commissioned and published by the Humanitarian Practice Network at ODI, 2010).


WAWDT: FCC turning off low-income access to broadband?

The item that prompted me to begin writing about “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT) was a news report about the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to rescind authorization for 9 internet providers to provide subsidized broadband to low income households under the Lifeline program (CNN; The Hill; Gizmodo). This is not the biggest issue out there, but in the torrent of news, it was in a way one item too many.

The details are a bit complicated, but the immediate effect seems to run contrary to the new FCC commissioner Ajit Pai‘s stated desire to end the digital divide. The Lifeline program (FCC general & consumer pages) began in 1985 as a way of assuring telephone access to people otherwise unable to access essential communications services (such as poor and elderly). Internet broadband was added to the Lifeline program in March 2016, in recognition of the increasingly essential nature of broadband – such as for students who need good internet access for their schoolwork.

The 9 companies that had been granted this status so far (out of a total of 117 applicants listed on the FCC’s Lifeline Broadband Provider Petitions & Public Comment Periods page, accessed 4 Feb. 2017) have had their status downgraded to pending. They are, in the order they appeared on the list:

The timeline and final outcome are uncertain. According to the Washington Post,

By stopping companies … from accessing the Lifeline program, Pai may be signaling his intention to apply more restrictions to the Lifeline program, policy analysts said. One such restriction could be a strict cap on the program’s budget, which is indirectly funded through fees in the bills of telephone customers.

Expansion of the Lifeline program to include broadband seemed a positive way to address one aspect of increasing inequality – access to information via the internet. Its ending or curtailment would certainly be a loss. Hopefully this can be reinstated or otherwise moved forward again in a way that benefits eligible people.

The FCC has at least one other potential WAWDT item on its policy agenda – overturning net neutrality as a governing principle of the internet.