Insisting that everyone in the world should speak a language, the United Nations General Assembly has declared 2008 the International Year of Languages. Matsuura Koichiro, director-general of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, will coordinate international efforts to stress the importance of languages and promote their study.
UNESCO Director General Matsuura Koichiro believes that everyone should speak a language, or even two.
To D-G Matsuura, languages are essential both for individual identity and for peaceful coexistence. Language eradicates poverty and hunger (money, after all, has words on it, and food comes with instructions for preparation and complicated nutritional labels). Literacy and education are useless without language to back them up (teachers don't talk just to hear the sound of their voices, or so we've been told). And language is instrumental in fighting “HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases” that people have to be told, with words, how to avoid, or if that doesn't work, how to treat. To facilitate this, UNESCO underscores the connection between cultural diversity and linguistic diversity, and with only about a quarter of all languages used in schools or in cyberspace, U.N. experts warn that up to half of the 7000 languages in the world are in danger of disappearing over the next few generations.
In conjunction with the International Year of Languages, UNESCO is encouraging government policies that support the use of first languages together with the learning of regional, national and international languages, to ensure that everyone can participate in a globalizing world. UNESCO also encourages everyone to “take a language to lunch” by learning additional languages, both big and small, and it sponsors the annual World Language Day, on Feb. 21, 2008, to celebrate everyone’s right to use their native tongue in all aspects of their daily lives, and to honor the martyrs who have died to preserve their linguistic rights.
While the rest of the world lines up to support the U.N.’s International Languages Year, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad has announced that America’s participation remains problematic. That's because the Bush administration is claiming that languages are theories, not scientifically-proven facts, and the president himself recently affirmed his belief that God created English in just six days and promised to veto the use of federal funds to teach language evolution to impressionable children.
Though his own mastery of language remains in doubt, Pres. George W. Bush has insisted that languages are theories, not facts, and that the United States won’t sign any multinational treaties that may be detrimental to the spread of English around the planet.
Reacting to a New York Times report that Marvel Comics has just released a bilingual Fantastic Four comic book, the president also told reporters in a Rose Garden press briefing that the United States would not be a signatory to any multinational treaties attempting to reverse global language change. He urged everyone living in the United States to speak English, not Spanish, and, demonstrating his commitment to make English America’s official language, he resolved to begin learning English right away.
Rejecting a version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” sung in Spanish as well as the new Fantastic Four adventure, “Isla de la Muerte,” Pres. Bush announced that the U.S. will not join any international effort to reverse language change.
Despite its support for the International Year of Languages, behind the scenes UNESCO itself is divided on the language issue. Arab-speaking UNESCO delegates continue to urge an international boycott of Hebrew, and in a press release issued in Pyongyang, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continued to deny that a severe shortage of Korean nouns has led to serious language loss in North Korea.
The new Fantastic Four adventure, Isla de la Muerte, available in English or Spanish, is likely to anger official English supporters like Tennessee’s Sen. Lamar Alexander (R.), who has introduced legislation to prevent the EEOC from going after employers like the Salvation Army who require their workers to speak English.
With such opposition, it’s not clear whether the U.N.’s International Year of Languages will have any impact on language use around the world. Most people already speak a language, and many have strong opinions about whether other languages should even be allowed to exist. Of course, that’s not anything the U.N. hasn’t faced and failed to deal with before in its fifty-year history.
During that period, China renewed its crack-down on dissident languages, and the U.N. did nothing; Pres. Pervez Musharraf ordered Pakistan’s security forces to shoot Sindhi speakers on sight, and again the U.N. stood idly by; and France renewed its ban on English, while the U.N. watched, powerless, from its New York headquarters. The European Union, with 23 official languages, conducts most of its business in English, a situation that the United Nations, which conducts most of its business in English, finds “business as usual.”
But now, under the guise of supporting world languages, the U.N. may finally oppose the juggernaut (a Hindi word) of English. That may be why one of the top items on UNESCO’s agenda for the International Year of Languages is the establishment of a force of blue-helmeted U.N. language guardians to keep peace in linguistic hotspots around the world -- for example, Ireland, where the official language is Irish, but new citizens will now be required to speak English..
Meanwhile, Michael Moore and Al Gore are negotiating for the movie rights for a documentary based on the Year of Languages, while Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee plans to satirize the U.N.'s "language huggers" in a segment to be aired on Saturday Night Live before the Iowa caucuses.
The U.N. may deploy a force of language guardians to linguistic hotspots around the world from Kinshasa, pictured above, to Pahrump, Nevada, where language activists want to ban everything but English.