Magazine article UN Chronicle

Safeguarding Cultural and Linguistic Diversity in the Context of Global Citizenship

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Safeguarding Cultural and Linguistic Diversity in the Context of Global Citizenship

Article excerpt

Why at all would we want to safeguard cultural and linguistic diversity you may wish to ask, when we talk so much about the global citizen?

I will take you on a brief journey of thoughts. More than ever, Article 55 of the United Nations Charter, signed 72 years ago, was written with much foresight. By recognizing that international cultural cooperation, as well as universal respect for human rights without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion, are conditions necessary for well-being for all and friendly relations among nations, the Article laid the groundwork for cultural and linguistic diversity.

More recently, target 4.7 of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, on inclusive and equitable quality education, has addressed promotion of sustainable development in education for global citizenship and appreciation for cultural diversity. As we go forward, putting the provisions of Article 55 and SDG 4 into practice will be central to maintaining peace, enhancing governance, respecting human rights, supporting sustainable development and ensuring that no one is left behind.

Language and culture are indeed key components of our identities and bind communities and nations together. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines language as "a system of conventional spoken, manual, or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves. The functions of language include communication, the expression of identity, play, imaginative expression, and emotional release". (1)

Language and culture are intricately related and dependant on each other, shaping personalities and serving as repositories of knowledge. They contribute to how we see ourselves and can determine with what groups we identify.

We live in a world where 96 per cent of the estimated 6,909 languages recorded are spoken by only 4 per cent of the world's population. (2) Moreover, about 6 per cent of languages have more than 1 million speakers and collectively account for an estimated 94 per cent of the world population. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that more than half of the world's languages are in danger of disappearing. (3)

Recent events have shown a renewed search for identity--a search for belonging, anxieties over loss of identity, and the pursuit of meaning in a globalized setting where too many have been left behind.

These are vital questions of our time and certainly of our futures, as Article 55 and SDG 4 recognize. For development to be truly sustainable, language and culture must be granted full attention to address these mounting anxieties and search for belonging, which are core elements of sustainability.

The Evenki poet Alitet Nemtushkin captures these sentiments of world communities whose languages, together with a sense of identity and belonging, are fast disappearing:

   If I forget my native speech,
   And the songs that my people sing
   What use are my eyes and ears?
   What use is my mouth?

   If I forget the smell of the earth
   And do not serve it well
   What use are my hands?
   Why am I living in the world?

   How can I believe the foolish idea
   That my language is weak and poor
   If my mother's last words
   Were in Evenki?

As High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, of which there are 91, I am excited by the fact that these three groups of countries are home to the most diverse languages and cultures in the world, but I'm also concerned because these languages are among the most endangered. Papua New Guinea, a small island developing State, records some 840 languages, twice the number of languages spoken across Europe. (4) In the Pacific, a region with some 1,300 languages, each language is spoken by just 1,000 people on average. …

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