Language Rights and Challenges in an Era of Globalization - Notes for an address at the inaugural conference of the International Association of Language Commissioners
Notes for an address at the inaugural conference of the International Association of Language Commissioners
Barcelona, Spain, March 21, 2014
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Good morning, bonjour, hola!
Gràcies a Rafael Ribó per la seva invitació i la seva hospitalitat.
[translation from Catalan: Thank you to Rafael Ribó for your invitation and your hospitality.]
Es magnífico estar aquí en esta maravillosa ciudad, Barcelona.
[translation from Spanish: It is great to be here in this wonderful city, Barcelona.]
It is a great pleasure to be speaking to you at this first meeting of the International Association of Language Commissioners. I would like to begin by thanking Seán Ó Cuirreáin for his hospitality as our host last year when we embarked on this process and for the work he has done as Secretary. I thank him also for the courage and lucidity that he has shown in stepping down as Ireland’s Language Commissioner, and explaining so dramatically why he felt obliged to do so.
Seán demonstrated clearly the fragility of language rights, and the need for constant vigilance to ensure that they are protected. It is very easy, as Seán put it before a parliamentary committee on January 23, for governments to take the position “Speak Irish (or any other minority language) among yourselves, but don’t speak it to us!”Footnote 1
He put his finger on the primary obligation of any state that makes a commitment to protect language rights: to offer services in the official language of the citizen’s choice, and not to require the citizen to learn another official language in order to deal with the state. I am looking forward to hearing his reflections in a few minutes.
I would also like to thank Pär Stenbäck, Finland’s former minister of Education and minister of Foreign Relations, for the role he played in inspiring and guiding us through the critical stages of conceiving the idea of the Association.
We are still an infant organization, taking our first steps. As commissioners, we are united by our mandates: we all have responsibilities as independent officials reporting to our parliaments or legislatures on how our governments are meeting their responsibilities on language rights. We are ombudsmen: we receive complaints, we investigate them and we report on them in a fair and objective fashion.
But we also play an important role promoting not only the survival of minority language communities, but their growth and development as well.
Some of us report to national governments, others to state or regional governments.
But we all share an implicit commitment to the idea of linguistic diversity and the importance of language as a critical component of the identity of a community.
Scientists have agreed for some time that the world’s languages are threatened. In fact, one language disappears every two weeks as the last surviving speakers of that language die.Footnote 2
By and large, the members of this association are not dealing with languages on the verge of disappearance. Rather, we are faced with the challenges of language vitality—the degree to which language communities can thrive.
In 2003, the UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages established nine criteria for language vitality:
- intergenerational language transmission;
- community members’ attitudes towards their own language;
- shifts in domains of language use;
- governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies, including official status and use;
- type and quality of documentation;
- response to new domains and media;
- availability of materials for language education and literacy;
- proportion of speakers within the total population; and, finally
- the absolute number of speakers.
Our offices do not, and cannot, address all of those issues. In fact, our focus is necessarily on what UNESCO calls “governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies, including official status and use.”Footnote 3
But we can all play a role in the protection of language rights and minority language communities and the promotion of the learning and use of minority languages, and their acceptance by the majority communities.
In a world in which international communication is increasing at an exponential rate, in which English has become the dominant language of scientific research and international trade, even this role is sometimes a challenge.
In every jurisdiction, there are people who argue that it is more important to learn an international language—usually English, but often Spanish or Russian—instead of the minority national language. It is up to us to speak up for the vitality of minority languages as a key element in national identity, and for the idea that linguistic diversity is a value and not a burden.
We have not founded this organization in order to come up with a magic solution, or export one country’s language policies to the rest of the world.
But we have concluded that we can all benefit from sharing our insights on what has worked and what hasn’t, on our successes and our challenges. One initiative I am pleased to announce today is the launch of our new website, which will serve to establish our public presence.
With that, I wish you a productive and enjoyable meeting in this wonderful city.
- Footnote 1
Seán Ó Cuirreáin, Translation of speaking notes; An Coimisinéir Teanga, Seán Ó Cuirreáin at the Houses of the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on the 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language, January 23, 2014.
- Footnote 2
Raveena Aulakh, “Dying languages: scientists fret as one disappears every 14 days,” Toronto Star, April 15, 2013; Thomas H. Maugh II, “Researchers say a language disappears every two weeks,” Los Angeles Times, September 19, 2007.
- Footnote 3
UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages, Language Vitality and Endangerment.