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Entries Tagged as 'IYL'

International Mother Language Day 2009 concludes International Year of Langauges

Official poster for IMLD 2009 The tenth International Mother Language Day (IMLD) today, 21 Feb. 2009, marks the end of the International Year of Languages (IYL).

As part of the observation of IMLD and the ending of IYL, a revised version of the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger was unveiled on 19 February. It includes an online, interactive version.

Yesterday, 20 Feb., there was a panel marking IMLD and ending IYL.

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International Decade of Languages?

As we draw to the end of 2008 – which is designated as, among other things, International Year of Languages (IYL) – I wanted to ask what’s next? And to propose the possibility of an International Decade of Languages to follow up on issues that the IYL dealt with as well as some others.

A year is a short time to do much more than raise awareness, achieve some limited project results, and begin to link and expand networks interested in such a vast topic as languages. Is it time to prepare the rationale and plans for a longer term campaign?

Issues that could be addressed by an International Decade of Languages might include:

  • What more can be done for endangered languages and their speakers, from documentation and preservation, to development and education
  • Highlight the situation of languages that are not on lists of endangered languages like the Red Book, but are contracting or not being developed for education and advancement of their first language speakers.
  • Explore how the languages of the least powerful regularly get less attention in education and development, than those of the more powerful, even when significant numbers of speakers are involved.
  • Related to the above, consider the importance of languages in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the objectives of the UN Literacy Decade, etc.
  • Discuss how to develop language policy and planning worldwide, on country, regional and global levels.
  • Consider the importance of language education for individuals and in regard to other goals of education and language development.
  • Develop an official International Declaration of Linguistic Rights for ratification by the UN and the world’s countries.
  • Explore how localization of ICT and application of human language technologies can impact language preservation, development, arts, and learning.
  • Consider whether, how and when to adopt an official international auxiliary language (or to just let English continue to evolve into this role de facto).
  • And others.

There is a little bit of time yet to consider such a concept before the end of the IYL – which was officially launched on the last International Mother Language Day (21 Feb. 2008) and will officially close on the next (21 Feb. 2009). Should proclamation of an International Decade of Languages be a recommendation to come out of the IYL experience?

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Opening of the National Museum of Language

Logo of the National Museum of LanguageI had the opportunity yesterday (April 29) to visit the National Museum of Language (NML) in College Park, Maryland (U.S.) by invitation for a special preview day. The museum opens to the public formally on Saturday, May 3.

The name gives the impression that it is government-owned, like the various other “national” museums and galleries in Washington, DC, it is actually a private effort by a small non-profit organization. It’s also physically rather small with basically one main exhibit room, and a small suite with some more displays, a meeting room for activities and classes, and a small office. But it is a beginning that was a long time coming – apparently the concept goes back to 1971 and the actual organization began in 1997 (and incorporated 10 years ago).

NML’s vision is described as:

The mission of The National Museum of Language is to enhance understanding of all aspects of language in history, contemporary affairs, and the future.

… and it intends to “[foster] the study of the nature of language, its development, and its role and importance in society, and by exploring linguistic problems and ways of overcoming them” in order to serve people in diverse pursuits and walks of life, and to promote understanding.

The first exhibit of NML – “Writing Language: Passing It On” – focuses on writing systems. It has some nice examples and some interactive computer programs:

The opening exhibit … will show both alphabetic writing systems (Arabic, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) and logographic writing systems (Chinese and Japanese). [from the press release]

In addition to looking at the exhibits, I also had the chance to talk with several of the principal leaders of the museum, notably Dr. Amelia Murdoch, the president, and Drs. Pat Barr-Harrison and Jill Robbins of the board of directors. They shared some ideas and plans about the museum project. Eventually they and their colleagues hope to be able to move into a facility of their own – either something existing or new, like the image displayed on the NML website.

The opening of the NML is a significant step, even if a small one, and hopefully it will get more attention and funding to realize its potential. Symbolically it is nice that it occurred in the International Year of Languages (IYL).

The NML is also one of a handful of locations devoted to languages around the world that deal with languages as a whole. One of the ideas that I’m personally interested in is finding a way to get these “language museums” linked in a productive network. In fact this is an emerging category of museum that in its broadest sense might include also language-specific museums. The IYL would seem to be an ideal time to develop connections and put in place structures that can facilitate collaboration and assistance to new initiatives for language-related displays and institutes for public awareness and learning.

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What about the “Declaration of Linguistic Rights”?

Logo of UDLRThere are probably not many people who have heard of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (UDLR). The whole concept of linguistic rights is not widely known or discussed outside of some “MINEL” (minority, indigenous, national, endangered, local) language communities and language experts and activists. During this International Year of Languages, and with an upcoming Symposium on Linguistic Rights in the World (Geneva, 24 April), it would seem to be an ideal moment to ask where we are going with the UDLR and the whole concept.

The story behind the UDLR apparently is that it was initiated in September 1994 by the International PEN Club’s Translations and Linguistic Rights Committee and the Escarré International Centre for Ethnic Minorities and Nations, and culminated with its adoption at the World Conference on Linguistic Rights held in Barcelona on 6-9 June 1996. UNESCO was asked for its support, and apparently accorded it. However the UDLR has not been ratified by the UN General Assembly and does not have the status in international law that something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has.

Speaking of the latter, language is mentioned as a factor not to be used to limit application of the rights enumerated therein:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. … (UDHR, Article 2; my emphasis added)

However, this is not quite the same as – or at least does not have the same emphasis as – “linguistic rights,” which concern individual and community rights to use a language. Hence the motivation to write something like the UDLR.

The point is perhaps clearer in considering the extreme opposite – “linguistic genocide” – which refers to deliberate efforts by a government or power to prevent, limit, and ultimately eliminate the use of a specific language, and may be regarded as a type of cultural genocide.

There is an interesting discussion of the latter and international law in the advanced version of an expert paper on children’s education and human rights prepared for the upcoming 7th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (21 April-2 May in New York). The paper was submitted by Lars Anders-Baer (prepared in cooperation with Ole Henrik-Magga, Robert Dunbar and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas) and entitled “Forms of Education of Indigenous Children as Crimes Against Humanity?” According to the authors, cultural genocide was not explicitly included in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (adopted by the UN in 1948, the same year as the UDHR) for various reasons. However the authors find that there are still ways that this international agreement can be used against cultural genocide, and linguistic genocide.

Nevertheless it seems that while the field of international law and human rights is a complex and evolving one, there are some significant gaps when it come to languages. Specifically there are apparently no explicit protections of linguistic rights such as proposed in the still unofficial UDLR of 1996. But is the ULDR the best way to fill these gaps? One expert suggested that it might need a rewrite before it could hope for international ratification. But there has to my knowledge been no such discussion. It would be a shame if the International Year of Languages were to pass without any serious consideration of picking up this initiative.

A small positive step would be to begin by focusing on the rights of children, as the abovementioned article does. In a different context I’ve also called attention to the punishment of children for speaking their mother tongues in Africa (a practice that has been known in many other parts of the world as well). An earlier example is Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’s “Declaration of Children’s Linguistic Rights” published in 1995 (originally in 1986; thanks to Joan Wink for calling my attention to it):

  1. Every child should have the right to identify with her original mother tongue(s) and have her identification accepted and respected by others.
  2. Every child should have the right to learn the mother tongue(s) fully.
  3. Every child should have the right to choose when she wants to use the mother tongue(s) in all official situations.

At the very least, perhaps this short formulation and the longer UDLR could be publicized more in order to help raise awareness about linguistic rights issues.

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International Year of Planet Earth

IYPE Registered TMThe International Year of Planet Earth (IYPE) is another of the several “Year” observances declared by the U.N. for 2008 (I previously mentioned the International Year of Languages [IYL], and will come to the others later). It actually runs from 2007 through 2009, but had its formal launch at UNESCO on 12-13 February 2008.

The aim of IYPE is given as: “to capture people’s imagination with the exciting knowledge we possess about our planet, and to see that knowledge used to make the Earth a safer, healthier and wealthier place for our children and grandchildren.” It is intended to “support research projects within defined themes focusing on Earth Sciences in the service of society.”

IYPE is described as “a joint initiative by UNESCO and the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS)” which involves “[t]welve Founding Partners, 26 Associate Partners and a growing number of International Partner organisations from all continents and representing all major geoscientific communities in the world,” as well as about 70 national committees.

The approach is explained on the IYPE website as:

The International Year of Planet Earth aims to ensure greater and more effective use by society of the knowledge accumulated by the world’s 400,000 Earth scientists. The Year’s ultimate goal of helping to build safer, healthier and wealthier societies around the globe is expressed in the Year’s subtitle ‘Earth science for Society’.

The International Year runs from January 2007 to December 2009, the central year of the triennium (2008) having been proclaimed by the UN General Assembly as the UN Year. The UN sees the Year as a contribution to their sustainable development targets as it promotes wise (sustainable) use of Earth materials and encourages better planning and management to reduce risks for the world’s inhabitants.

This is clearly a substantial and well-organized effort, with important potential benefits in terms of public awareness, organizational networking, and longer-term outcomes.

When considering IYPE and IYL, it is tempting to contrast the resources and planning, but without going into that, the differences seem to derive mainly from IYPE having had a kind of consortium in place fairly early in the process. I think this is an important lesson for the success of any “Year” observance: to have a dedicated organization that can help coordinate observance and activities. I’ll return to this topic later.

I’m also tempted to see potential connections between IYPE and IYL – how can the two themes be linked in specific ways to enrich the impact of each?

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International Mother Language Day & International Year of Languages

IMLD 2008 logoToday is the ninth annual International Mother Language Day (IMLD), and the date of the official launch of the International Year of Languages (IYL). UNESCO also has a portal page for more info in IYL.
I’ve posted various information about IMLD and IYL in a special section of this site on Support for IYL 2008. It includes links to pages relating to IYL and IMLD on the UNESCO site, as well as a lot of other items and links.

The IYL offers the opportunity to make the case for various initiatives on language and linguistic diversity. One of the things I’m hoping for is progress towards a more effective “civil society” network linking organizations and initiatives with diverse but complementary purposes. More on that later.

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