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Saving Mother Tongues

International Conference on Indigenous Languages Convenes at UCSB


Friday, February 24, 2012

The global fight to save obscure languages is touching down in a very local way this week, as UCSB plays host to more than 20 experts from around the world who have come to discuss the plight to protect mother tongues in Europe, China, Canada, South Africa, and beyond. With about two indigenous languages being lost and fading into history every single month, humankind is losing critical elements of culture at a rapid clip, so there’s never been a more appropriate time to tackle this often overlooked issue head-on.

“We are losing a great deal of knowledge that’s been accumulated over hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years,” explained law professor Fernand de Varennes, who is speaking this morning in the Mosher House’s Alumni Hall about how international law has changed to deal with this issue. “Trying to eradicate differences is not the way of the future….We should protect what makes us human by protecting what makes us different.”

It’s all part of a second annual conference called “Protecting Identity and Diversity: Language and Cultural Rights” that is convened by Professor Viola Miglio, the endowed Barandiarán Chair of Basque Studies in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and coincides with Mother Language Day on February 21, an UNESCO day of remembrance for the students who died in Bangladesh during the Bengali language movement in 1952. More than 70 students, professors, researchers, and attorneys are expected to check out the various speakers and panel discussions, which started on Thursday morning and carry through until Miglio’s closing remarks this afternoon at 2:45 p.m. In addition to looking at languages you may have never heard of, the conference’s speakers will also be analyzing how policies in places such as California have an effect on native speakers of Spanish.

“We really do work to foster the understanding that monolingualism can be cured,” explained Miglio this week over coffee and cookies at the Franciscan Inn, where a number of visiting experts were staying. “We are promoting diversity to foster tolerance.”

And Miglio’s department is a case in point, as she explained, “It’s probably the only department in the United States that teaches Catalan, Galician, Basque, and Spanish and Portuguese.” An expert in Icelandic languages, Miglio is not Basque herself, which has in part allowed her to navigate the sometimes sticky cultural issues that arise even American academia. “We stay away from the political and ideological side,” she explained, noting that Basque and other historically oppressed language speakers do often coincide with nationalistic movements.

One such hot spot is in Tibet, where China’s language laws seem to be simultaneously progressive and oppressive. The legal expert de Varennes — who teaches at the University of Moncton in Canada but will be heading to Beijing to teach grad students there this Sunday — said that the Chinese law is good, but that it’s not implemented and is used in Tibet as a means of discrimination, because only those who speak the official state language of Mandarin can get civil service jobs and go to the universities. Similar policies exist in Thailand, where ethnic Malays in the south are fighting back and often targeting teachers of the Thai language, and in South Africa, where English is the preferred language despite nearly one dozen recognized others. While may countries have adopted more lenient and even proactive policies since World War II, there still do exist places in the world where the official stance is very much anti-multilingualism, said de Varennes.

But other than protecting basic human rights and promoting linguistic diversity, why should governments care about saving these mother tongues? Cultural tourism is one possible economic benefit, for just as you would hate to trek through the Himalayas and spot a bunch of McDonalds, you’d loath traveling to a faraway land just to hear perfect English being spoken. And there’s plenty to be said for multilingualism in general, as studies show that it’s better for your brain and helps fight against Alzheimer’s.

Though it might be best to take it from the peoples who have seen their languages disappear over the years. “In the end,” explained de Varennes, “every one is saddened.”

For more info on the conference, which runs until this afternoon at UCSB’s Mosher Alumni House, click here.

Jagwar Ma

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