Common heritage, multiple languages: protecting and promoting ‘unity in diversity’

When a language dies, a way of understanding the
world dies with it, a way of looking at the world.
(George Steiner, After Babel, 1975)

Despite their indisputable value, languages around the world are disappearing at a worrying pace. Indigenous languages – the majority of today’s estimated 7000 spoken languages – are the most endangered, as they face challenges relating to migration, educational disadvantage, illiteracy, assimilation, enforced relocation, and other human rights discriminations (UNESCO, 2019). Taking action to raise awareness of the significant contributions Indigenous Languages make to the world’s cultural diversity, in an attempt to ‘mitigate’ this alarming trend, the United Nations recently declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages (IY2019).

Sharing the same concern about the rapid loss of “endangered languages”, the European Union has joined the UN in this endeavor, following up on a 2018 European Parliament Resolution calling for states’ commitment to IY2019 its commitment to promoting less widely used European languages as a contribution to multilingualism, the EU’s support to this initiative is grounded on an understanding of languages as the most direct expression of culture, as part – and constitutive – of “our universal cultural patrimony and of our individual cultural identity”. Respect for linguistic diversity as set out in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (Art 22) is a core value of the EU; one that goes hand in hand with respect for the individual, mutual tolerance and acceptance; one that underlies the founding principle of post-war Europe, unity in diversity, and makes it a Community with a shared heritage – where cultural specificities, customs, and beliefs come together exalting each other, rather than being overshadowed.

With 24 official languages and over 60 regional or minority languages (RMLs) spoken by some 40 million people – e.g. Basque, Catalan, Frisian, Saami, Welsh and Yiddish – the EU considers the protection and promotion of RMLs central to constructing a Europe based on democracy and cultural diversity, as recognized in the 1992 European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. To that end, besides its ‘advocacy’ efforts, the EU has engaged in a number of projects. Among these are education-related initiatives – both in terms of access to it and of research facilitating the production of RML teaching materials, RMLs in cyberspace, and support to RMLs media dissemination.

With the Council of Europe declaration of 2001 as the “European Year of Languages”, the “European Day of Languages” also started being celebrated annually on 26 September, in an effort to raise awareness of the importance of linguistic diversity, plurilingualism, and lifelong language learning for “understanding each other […] and to embrace other cultures and ways of life” (Jagland, 2018). The potential embedded in languages for building inclusive society – which is linked to their impact on crucial domains such as education, social and cultural life, economy, science, and technology – is what ultimately makes them essential to human development, sustainable development, good governance, peace and reconciliation, as noted by the UN. Sensitization and appreciation in this regard are still much needed – even more so, at a time where the EU faces a number of challenges that threaten to split partnerships forged over more than half a century.

Written by Daisy Bisoffi

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