Sunday, July 27, 2008

International Year of Languages?

I have been waiting for months to hear some mention of the
2008 International Year of Languages, but apparently it's just one of many events that has gotten lost in the more 'dramatic' news of politics and economics. Still I don't quite understand why this UN-sponsored event hasn't gotten more publicity since what language we speak and in what contexts we speak it does affect our daily and global lives.

Since I teach English to non-native speakers, I am daily confronted with other languages, both inside and outside the classroom. Personally, I love learning foreign languages, but at our ESL school, we stress the importance of 'English only.' This means that teachers should not practice or show off their other language skills with their students while in the school. On the other hand, how can we acknowledge the value of other languages without occasionally using them to communicate with our non-native English speakers? To get around this, I often point out some of the foreign words that English has adopted into its dictionary (from German, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, etc.), but it would certainly be nice if more public figures could give some lip-service to the fact that all languages and accents enrich our society. By officially celebrating the International Year of Languages, Americans could send a message to our own immigrants and to immigrants around the world that diversity is beautiful. There's still time.

Partly in response to the the 9-11 attack, several years ago, our President established the Office of Global Communication. I like the name even though I'm usually not in favor of creating more government departments. Its mission is to provide a "means for the United States Government to ensure consistency in messages that will promote the interests of the United States abroad, prevent misunderstanding, build support for and among coalition partners of the United States, and inform international audiences." However, how can we accomplish this mission without placing a value on sociolinguistic, linguistic, and communicative competence? (Of course, many people view the Office of Global Communication as an organ for propaganda for the USA. I like to think that building communication lines, however tenuous, is important.) Again, why has there been so little news about the International Year of Languages?

There is a site that caught my attention which addresses intercultural exchange and what is contained there is what I was hoping to see at the UN site for the International Year of Languages. For some Europeans, 2008 is the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. What is fascinating is that in the video clip above, you have speakers from all over the world addressing their audience in English. (It appears, however, that the event is taking place in Belgium.)

On the other hand, the next video is reminiscent of an old Coca Cola commercial that I used to enjoy that has people from all over the world joining hands in song. (Yeah, it was about the globalization of the world by Coca Cola, but it worked because it focused on something that all people could understand and share - a coke.)

One of the messages of Euro 2008 is 'Different languages - one goal. No to racism.' Besides color, religion, sexual orientation, and culture, language can also divide people. English has played a unifying role for the most part, but I think we native English speakers must be open to the idea that bi- or tri-lingualism is another path to forging strong global ties.


Don said...

FYI, I posted a link to this entry on a list of blogs that mention the International Year of Languages.

evelyn said...

Thanks, Don, for your link to blogs on the IYL. I'm excited about finding out what people are doing in celebration of this event.