Symposium zu Sprachrechten und Nachhaltigkeit in New York

Am 11. und 12. Mai 2017 fand in New York im Sitz der UN das Symposium „Language, the Sustainable Development Goals, and Vulnerable Populations“ statt. Humphrey Tonkin informiert über vorläufige Ergebnisse:

The Study Group on Language and the United Nations, an independent group of scholars and practitioners on matters related to the international use of language, convened a symposium on Language, the Sustainable Development Goals, and Vulnerable Populations at the Church Centre for the United Nations, 777 United Nations Plaza, New York, on 11 and 12 May 2017. Its goal was to examine issues of language and vulnerable populations and their centrality in the development, implementation, and successful completion of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The symposium was sponsored by a number of organizations, including the Center for Applied Linguistics, the Center for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems and its journal Language Problems and Language Planning, and the Universal Esperanto Association (an organization in consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council and associated with the UN Department of Public Information). Financial support was provided by the Esperantic Studies Foundation.

The symposium held by the Study Group on Language and the United Nations in 2016, entitled Symposium on Language and the Sustainable Development Goals, addressed the fact that the SDGs fall short in their lack of attention to language largely due to a more general failure to recognize the consequences, both positive and negative, of linguistic diversity. Although the rhetoric surrounding the SDGs stresses inclusiveness, multi-directional communication, and reaching the world“s least advantaged citizens, policy efforts often disregard the very essence of human communication – language – easily undermining such efforts, and ultimately hindering progress towards the achievement of the SDGs.

This year“s symposium highlighted the reality that the failure to account for language and language diversity during the formulation and implementation of policy disproportionately yields adverse effects on vulnerable populations, the primary stakeholders in the successful achievement of the SDGs. Many NGOs represent themselves as the primary facilitators of multidirectional communication. However, the local languages of vulnerable populations through which NGOs listen and operationalize policy „are often given no prominence in project design or in feedback and accountability mechanisms“ [4]. This type of institutional infrastructure exacerbates the „growing disconnect between those who have the knowledge to make progress toward sustainable development goals and those who directly benefit from this progress“ [8].

In order to bridge this gap, it is the responsibility of the development community to first understand the lives, experiences, and goals of the primary stakeholders in development. In doing so, we may come to understand that populations are not inherently vulnerable; rather, specific aspects of geo-politics and language policies have actively rendered populations vulnerable [26]. Identifying the root causes of this created vulnerability in each affected population may lead to more effective, more democratic, and more sustainable development policy and practice. By removing the geo-political, educational, and linguistic barriers that have disempowered and continue to disempower communities, the wider development effort more effectively enlists „vulnerable and marginalized communities to advocate for specific actions to realize improvements in their livelihoods and economic opportunity, personal and professional circumstances, and to raise awareness of social issues“ [17].

The symposium“s presenters, many of them language professionals and experts who have devoted their life“s work to the understanding of the role of language in society, examined individual communities, development projects, and best practices. They highlighted the crucial role language plays in facilitating or hindering sustainable development, especially in regards to vulnerable populations, a largely heterogenous group of primary stakeholders in the achievement of the SDGs. Three types of vulnerable populations were the foci of the symposium: permanently settled refugees/migrants, temporarily settled refugees/migrants, and indigenous or heritage language minorities. Within these three groups, adults and children were shown to experience significantly different language-related challenges, demonstrating that, even broadly speaking, at least six distinct types of vulnerable populations require individualized sustainable development solutions, each devised through inclusive, multi-directional communication.

For permanently settled refugees/migrants, as well as speakers of heritage migrant languages, it is the socio-political subordination and enforced illegitimacy of migrant languages in educational systems that renders the ever growing populations of young speakers of minority migrant languages vulnerable [1]. Under current conditions such individuals are commonly forced into linguistic and cultural assimilation under the guise of successful integration, effectively nullifying social and cultural capital, exacerbating existing inequalities.

For temporarily settled refugees/migrants, it is the struggle between hopes of repatriation, requiring reintegration into the educational system and civil society of their home countries, and the possibility of permanent displacement that challenges the clarity and success of development efforts. In these contexts, an environment which celebrates diversity, valuing refugees“ linguistic and cultural capital while providing language and vocational tools may alleviate this struggle [19].

For indigenous or heritage language minorities, especially speakers of low prestige languages, inequality is reinforced through the institutionalization of legal, economic, educational, and social discrimination in the form of inaccessible languages of education and government. For some, differences in cultural language use, such as a linguistic tradition of allusions, proverbs, and riddles, may also result in a preconception of untrustworthiness or lack of confidence, potentially further disenfranchising such populations [9].

In the formulation and implementation of sustainable development policy, the individual circumstances of each of these and other vulnerable populations must not only be addressed but must be the guiding principle in development efforts. By uncovering the root causes of their vulnerability, a task which requires linguistically-aware efforts at multilateral communication, the wider development community may facilitate individual, community, and state ownership of the Sustainable Development Goals.

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