Celebrating Cultural Pluralism, Welcoming 2008 as the International Year of Languages (First part)

The continuing practice of cultural tyranny and linguistic injustice of many countries around the world has remained unabated.

Many of those nation-states that have signed the various United Nations international covenants that are aimed to protect the linguistic and cultural rights of peoples—rights that are fundamental because they are human—have only paid lip service to what the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization calls as “promotion and use of multilingualism.”

The UNESCO, cognizant of the urgency of saving human languages and their import in human civilization and human life, has declared 2008 as the International Year of Languages.

In a message from Koichiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO, he says that UNESCO is “fully aware of the crucial importance of languages when seen against the many challenges that humanity will have to face over the next few decades.”

“Languages are indeed essential to the identity of groups and individuals and to their peaceful coexistence. They constitute a strategic factor of progress towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between the global and the local context,” he adds.

Ethnologue lists 6912 known world languages.

At the current extinction rate, about half of these would be able to survive within the next two centuries.

And of the top ten languages whose survival and thriving is certainly assured, all these are languages of countries whose economy is far different from the rest of the countries of the world and whose political supremacy remains entrenched in their histories of colonization and or dominance of other languages and cultures are a given.

Chinese Mandarin tops the list of the ten countries with most number of speakers, with more than one billion, says the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the Encarta Encyclopedia, and Language Today.

But while it is true that the number of speakers determine the life and the future of any language, it is also true that the spread and diffusion of any language over other cultures and climes—over a more widespread geography—may be factored in as another condition for survival and thriving.

With English spread and used in 115 countries many of which consider it as their official languages, English has an edge over Chinese Mandarin as it is boxed in some sort of way in only a few countries, except in academia outside these countries where the language is treated as an academic interest.

Spanish comes in second in number of speakers, and its spread is far better than Chinese Mandarin, but it does not have the same widespread presence as that of English.

Among the citizens of the net—the ‘netizens’—English has the most number of users, with almost 400 million, with Chinese Mandarin coming in second at about 185 million while Spanish is a low third at 113 million, says the Internet World Stats.

Compared to English, the rest of the world’s languages using the Internet are at 206 million, almost twice less than the Internet users using English, and only roughly that of Chinese Mandarin.

But while we are dazzled by these numbers, there are difficult realities out there that the rest of the thinking members of humanity need to consider, critique, and contemplate: there is that ugly underside to all these.

There ugly realities are these: That while some languages prosper, some die; that while develop, some go the road to extinction.

By 2050, according to estimates, Chinese Mandarin shall have overtaken other Chinese languages and shall have virtually marginalized two other Chinese languages widely spoken in China because of the ‘officialization’ of Chinese Mandarin in the name of the Chinese ‘nation’ and in the name of Chinese ‘nationalism’ as well.

The route to legitimizing a language by legislating it as either ‘national language’ or ‘official language’ has been one route to nation building used in the 18th and 19th century Europe, which is the same idea that afflicted the framers of constitutions of many countries.

The affliction is by force of imitation, and it is like a plague that hit many multilingual countries, hitting them in the soul, making them forget that nation building need not be a program of one-track mindedness but one where respect for the fundamental rights of citizens—the right to life and language and culture included—is of paramount import.

Contemporary world history is replete with fissures of many nations because of this disrespect for language and culture right of peoples.

(To be continued)