December 16, 2011,
Talk and Panel Discussion:
"Languages and the UN"
Go to the Esperanto version - Al la Esperanta versio
PROPOSAL FOR A SYMPOSIUM (SPRING 2012)
Universal Esperanto Association
Languages and the United Nations
Panelists at the December 16, 2011 event in New York (from left): Humphrey Tonkin, Françoise Cestac, Roberto Borrero, Paolo Valore.
(Photo: Ulrich Becker)
A Symposium on Language and the United Nations
The Association plans to organize a symposium in the spring of 2012 (tentative date: Friday, May 4) on the topic “Language and the United Nations,” during which it hopes to consider the role of language in the operations of the United Nations and the ways in which linguistic concerns intersect with United Nations programs. Among possible topics for consideration are:
Language services at the UN: translation and interpretation
Language training at the UN
Indigenous languages and indigenous peoples
Mother tongue education
Language and development
The Association welcomes proposals for papers on any of these topics or related topics – to be presented at the spring symposium. Please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A preliminary meeting on the topic took place from 2:30 pm to 4:30 pm on Friday, December 16, at the Church Center, 777 UN Plaza
. Principal speaker was Humphrey Tonkin
, University Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Hartford. Professor Tonkin has been associated with advocacy for the United Nations for many years and is well-known as a proponent of international education and language study. His talk was followed by a panel discussion. The panel consisted of Paolo Valore
(visiting professor at NYU, Esperanto speaker), Roberto Borrero
(specialist in Indigenous Peoples Issues related to culture, religon/spirituality, performing arts, the United Nations System) and Françoise Cestac
(previously Assistant General-Secretary of the UN and head of the Office of Conference Services at the UN). Please read the paper presented by Humphrey Tonkin
. The meeting was attended i.a. by Levi Batista
, previous head of CoNGO (Conference of NGOs in Consultative Relationship with the UN) and Rosa Resnick
(UN activist for the aged).
The United Nations is a fully international organization, indeed the most extensive and comprehensive international organization in existence. Its work spans the world and the peoples and nations of the world. Built into the very purposes and mission of the United Nations is the idea of an alliance of the nations of the world in free association to improve the lot of humankind and to advance equality, democracy, and material and spiritual well-being of all nations.
The linguistic dimension affects the work of the United Nations in numerous ways but is relatively little talked about. At the most immediate level, certain languages are used for conducting the regular business of the organization. A second range of languages is used for the circulation of documents and participation in debate. A third range of languages is used for the dissemination of information to member-states and the wider public, or to deal with the particular exigencies of a given project or program within the United Nations family. Languages are not treated equally because the need for communication makes such language equality unattainable. In effect, the organization has negotiated a certain compromise between monolingualism on the one hand and total multilingualism on the other.
Implementation of United Nations language policy involves the deployment of a large body of skilled translators and interpreters, many of them regular members of the UN staff or of staffs of its agencies, and many others working under contract. The United Nations also operates its own program of language training for staff members.
Beyond the formal language policy used in the Secretariat and in the General Assembly, there exist distinct and codified language policies in the various agencies and other UN bodies. These policies are applied with varying degrees of consistency and strictness. Here, too, compromises are negotiated, in an effort to include all, though sometimes with a bias toward the linguistically more powerful – not least because such a bias exists in the larger world beyond the UN itself.
Carrying out a particular project or running a particular program may require the deployment of many languages. A development project conducted exclusively in the working languages of the UN may well exclude the very population for whom the development project is designed, or may result in top-down decision-making that does not involve the people most directly affected. Reversing that process requires careful program design in which language is given adequate attention; it also requires resources, since language specialists must be involved in the process. Nowhere is this reality clearer than in human development – addressing people’s growing demands for participation in modern society while retaining their own linguistic, cultural and religious heritage and way of life.
The field of human development includes the issue of language. UN organizations such as UNESCO have devoted particular energies to the preservation of linguistic diversity, the linguistic and cultural rights of indigenous peoples, the right to mother-tongue education, and the preservation of endangered languages and cultures. In the field of human rights, the issue of language rights, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights instruments, is receiving increasing attention.
On occasion, such activities may seem at odds with official language policy within the UN – as though the formal policies of the United Nations on the one hand, and its activities in the field on the other, occupy two quite different ideological positions. Indeed, in the UN as in other organizations, there is a tendency to see language at the formal level as a technical problem, akin to plumbing or accounting, rather than as an issue that is fraught with ideological, political and cultural implications. This tendency to downplay the significance of language is itself an ideological, political and cultural choice, leading to potential distortion of the mission and accomplishments of the organization. Many feel that to upset the formal consensus might negatively affect the UN’s work in the field; others believe that greater linguistic democracy at the centre would lead to greater concern for linguistic freedom and diversity in the UN’s human development efforts. In a sense this tension reflects a larger tension in society as a whole – between those who welcome the forces of globalization as a way of opening opportunities for all and those who fear that global homogenization will lead to the loss of a sense of identity and individuality.
The Universal Esperanto Association, in addition to its promotion of the International Language Esperanto, takes an active interest in issues of language and human rights, language equality, the elimination of discrimination on linguistic grounds, multilingualism, and related issues. It is one of only a very few NGOs whose primary interest is the promotion not only of language learning but also of language rights. At the United Nations it works for these goals and also serves speakers of Esperanto (of whom there are hundreds of thousands across the world) as an information service about the UN and its work (see its website).
The Universal Esperanto Association has a long history of organizing conferences and symposiums in cooperation with UN personnel on aspects of language. For a number of years, in the 1980s, these conferences took place in cooperation with the Office of Conference Services and included such topics as:
Languages in International Organizations
Language and Culture in International Organizations
The Economics of Language Use
Overcoming Language Barriers: The Human/Machine Relationship
Language Planning at the International Level
Language Behaviour in International Organizations.
Recently the Association has revived this tradition. In December 2010, for example, it organized a symposium entitled “From Zamenhof to Soros,” at which a new biography of L. L. Zamenhof and a book by Tivadar Soros were launched. Speakers included Professor Esther Schor, of Princeton University, who is working on a book on Esperanto and Zamenhof, and the well-known financier George Soros, who presented a brief reminiscence of his father, Tivadar Soros.