Thinking and Acting Globally


NY poet Bob Holman recently posted in Facebook: "We've been using language rent-free for years. It's time we gave something back."

Replace "language" with "air" and Holman's statement sounds much like the Pope's encyclical on climate change. 196 countries will try again this December in Paris to come up with a coordinated and effective mechanism for addressing this global problem. We should similarly take concerted and coordinated steps to address issues of language loss at the international level.

It's already tough to address language issues at the local level. Many minority language communities are fighting for more official recognition, greater exposure in the media, and more language-focused school curricula. At home, parents in these communities struggle to continue their language traditions while trying to prepare their children to be competitive in national and international arenas that require mastery of other languages.

These local efforts are critical, but we need to go beyond "Think globally, act locally." The loss of language diversity - since 1950, 5% of our languages have gone completely extinct and another 37% are in trouble - also needs to be recognized and addressed at the international level. We need to act locally and globally to champion and preserve linguistic diversity.

A few international legal mechanisms have already been enacted such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("ICCPR") which grants minorities the right "to enjoy culture and to use language." The cost and politics of these types of agreements make implementation difficult, suggesting that along with doing a better job of engaging governments to work together to help our linguistic resources, we also need to raise the global consciousness of the value of sustaining all the languages we still have left.

There is precious little global discourse about the value to the world of minority languages. We have a sense of what speaking Yiddish, Arrernte, or Chickasaw means to the Yiddish, Arrernte, or Chickasaw communities, but we don't sufficiently talk about the worth of these languages to everyone else.

Revitalization efforts don't only benefit local communities: they show English, Chinese, Arabic and Spanish speakers different ways to approach the world, underpinning the cultural diversity essential to generating innovation, promoting personal and communal growth, and avoiding homogenization in an increasingly connected world. Monocultures aren't sustainable, whether it be with agriculture, or with humans.

Acting globally doesn't mean one approach for all languages. Indeed, what works for Hebrew or Welsh, which enjoy official status in their countries, might not work for at-risk languages without such recognition. Languages facing active campaigns against them will require different interventions than those that are declining simply due to the forces of modernization and globalization. And those on the brink of extinction might need substantially different intervention from those which have a dwindling but still solid base.

Language decline rarely seems urgent. Photos of children no longer understanding their grandmother's language don't go viral. The loss of words to articulate local wisdom doesn't make headlines. And the erosion of our linguistic diversity, and with it, our cultural diversity, is often too subtle and intangible to galvanize many people into action. Languages with odd names wither away slowly over time in far-away places without most people noticing. But each time another language disappears from the earth, we lose something valuable.

We need to act globally and locally to revitalize our at-risk languages. Otherwise, we'll all start talking -- and thinking -- the same way.