Prof. Probal Dasgupta | Message to the Confluence of Languages | Substantive language rights | Symposium on Linguistic Rights, UN, Geneva, 24-04-2008 | Droits linguistiques | Lingvaj rajtoj | Diritti linguistici  

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Probal Dasgupta: Message to the Confluence of Languages | Substantive language rights

Prof. Probal Dasgupta

President of the
Universal Esperanto Association

Probal Dasgupta

Universala Esperanto-Asocio - UEA -

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Message to the Confluence of Languages

Probal Dasgupta

Dear participants,

That you are all here, to celebrate the diversity of India's languages, is itself a major achievement, and our first duty - I say 'our' because some of us who cannot come are nonetheless present in spirit - is to thank Ganesh Devy and other co-organizers for making this accomplishment possible. That they are successful organizers of a confluence means that they know how to hand it over to all who take part, so that the boundary between organizers and participants is blurred.

    India is a country of blurred boundaries. We define boundaries explicitly, and then we proceed to treat them as negotiable semi-realities. This is an art. It has kept our cultural diversity alive - including even tribal languages whose existence has received no formal support from the structures of codification in ancient or modern India. Some of us are now beginning to forget how to maintain negotiated plurality at the spontaneous level. So the art of plurality is now an art we have to learn and practise self-consciously. Our capacity for public debate and articulation must rise to the occasion. We need to formulate the terms of negotiated plurality with care. Only then can we meet the challenge on a new scale.

    The institutions of education and of formal white collar labour for the educated can be used - we have shown in our practice - to create a divide between the elite and the masses. Our record shows that schooling in this form keeps tribal languages in a state of permanent disenfranchisement. Many of us, not being tribals, do not mind this, for we are in love with the success story of mainstream modern India.

    The time has now come to face the challenge of showing that we can bend the educational institutions - and the economic enterprises where our educated are going to work as adults - so hard that they can create friendship across that divide rather than hostility. Bend them so hard that they can bring all the smaller languages into the light rather than push them into the darkness. Bend them so hard that our literary publication system begins to release the energies of our country's oral traditions in the tribal societies, of the stories and rhymes our women once shared only among themselves but will now agree to share with a newly sensitive and interested public, and of everything else that the system of printing in the past banished from the public gaze. Our task is to also bend our public so that the public grows as the institutions grow, towards an inclusiveness that has to be seen to be believed.

    Professionally speaking, I work in the community of Indian linguists; with a Khubchandani, an Annamalai, a Kelkar or a Bhat, we have ample reason to be proud of our senior generation, and some of our younger linguists have demonstrated their capacity for academic rigour and demographic inclusiveness. I hope the public of India, which has tended not to quite understand what linguists are for, will begin to realize that this nation's unique mosaic of languages and cultures is worth cherishing, and that linguists can help us to face the challenge of preserving and cultivating this treasure.

    I speak also for the community of users of the language Esperanto, the language designed for quick learning that serves as a maximally neutral bridge between country and country, between people and people. The Esperanto community is determined to conserve the richness of the world's languages, focusing on the smaller communities. This is why such tireless minority language activists as Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Robert Phillipson are with us.

    At the formal level, I am writing this message in my capacity as the current president of Universal Esperanto Association, an NGO in operational relations with UNESCO - and having affiliated national organizations in seventy countries. Advocacy for communities whose language rights are being violated has become the main theme in our interventions at UNESCO and the United Nations. In 2008, we organized a symposium on language rights at the Geneva Office of the UN to celebrate our own centenary and the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our keynote speaker was Tove Skutnabb-Kangas; we were happy to provide a forum also for representatives of indigenous peoples to articulate their views on their right to conserve the cultural and intellectual richness of their languages.

    Esperanto is an important medium of translation that makes it possible to compare notes among the minority language activists of the world, and to familiarize each other both with the cultural and cognitive diversity of our art and knowledge and with the fundamental unity of human values. This provides an enduring basis for peace; Esperanto is essentially a peace movement with a linguistic face. It is not widely known that in 1921, when India was a full member of the League of Nations, India along with Argentina, Persia and four other nations mooted the idea of having Esperanto adopted at the world level. After the then Deputy Secretary General of the League, Inazo Nitobe, examined the issue and wrote a favourable report, India co-sponsored a formal resolution in favour of Esperanto; it was shot down by a French veto, with behind-the-scenes complicity by the British. It seems to us in the Esperanto world that today's Indians, facing the challenge of conserving India's rich mosaic of languages and cultures, would do well to consider adding Esperanto to their toolkit - at least at the level of the joint struggle that Esperantists have been lobbying for, and also at the intellectual and artistic level. Contrary to popular perception, our movement works closely with many friends who have not learnt the Esperanto language itself; Esperanto is also a culture, a cuisine that teaches us how to appreciate the aesthetic diversity that clothes our human unity.

    Thank you for your attention. The communities I represent wish you all a successful confluence as well as serious and sustainable follow-up. Please let us know how we linguists - and we Esperantists - can help. Yours,

Probal, 21.2.2010

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Substantive language rights

Linguistic Rights in the World,
the current situation
A Symposium to commemorate the
100th Anniversary of the
Universal Esperanto Association
and the 60th Anniversary of the
Declaration of Human Rights.

United Nations, Geneva, 24 April 2008

Probal Dasgupta: Substantive language rights

Prof. Probal Dasgupta: Substantive language rights. Symposium on Linguistic Rights, UN, Geneva, 24-04-08

This year marks the centenary of Universal Esperanto Association (UEA) and the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of language. We also remember 1998, the year in which Lee Chong-yeong, then president of UEA, organized a pioneering symposium in the UN Office in Geneva to celebrate the UDHR's golden jubilee. We thank our predecessors - the idea of a sequel, in fact, came from Lee Chong-yeong, who was speaking as an Asian to a fellow Asian. But 2008 is important in its own right.

The UN has declared 2008 as the International Year of Languages to address the alarming loss of languages and erosion of communities. The fact that UEA views the neutral character of Esperanto as a resource for the conservation of endangered languages is well known. But what exactly is UEA up to in the domain of language rights? Outside our special concern with the teaching and use of Esperanto, just what goals connected with language rights do we share with other stakeholders?

One of our traditional domains of joint action has been scholarly research. When it became clear, for instance, that a bottleneck in the study of language policy, official and otherwise, was holding up serious discussion, UEA started a journal in the sixties to encourage academic work in that domain. That journal, Language Problems and Language Planning, has come to be seen as a pioneering periodical that helped establish language policy as a social science.

Advances in social science research on language rights since then have been dramatic. In the economic, political, legal and sociological study of democratic societies, academics concerned with language rights today have a reasonable understanding, over a wide range of contexts, of the various issues, accomplishments, and gaps to be filled. But the title of my presentation suggests that I think this paradigm may not be entirely equal to the task.

To see why not, let us consider an idealized picture. Imagine all speech communities suddenly attaining formal equality in the language rights domain. You get to talk to authorities in your mother tongue; they reply in the same language. Is that ideal world - possibly spiced up by many speakers using Esperanto to reach foreigners - precisely what our movement is trying to bring about? Are we to regard English and Esperanto as being in principle parallel candidates for world language status differing only in that English is "owned" by a speech community? Can scholarly debate about their respective merits rest on such a basis?

For contemporary discussion to face language diversity loss as an aspect of the environmental crisis, it is important not to confine ourselves to the economics-focused characterization of the problem. And indeed the goal around which our work as Esperantists is to be understood, the goal that we hope we share with our current and future partners, has to do not just with access to democratic forms, but with extending the substantive social welfare of citizens to the linguistic domain.

We have always based our advocacy for Esperanto on the ease of acquiring and using it, which is a substantive property. A closer look may be necessary in order to grasp the role this factor plays in the debate as we view it. Given that Esperanto words highlight the work done by affixes - for instance, the word for 'stationery shop' is skrib-il-ar-ej-o, whose movable pieces mean write, instrument, aggregate, place, noun - the learner can acquire just a few word-making pieces and can then puzzle out, and produce, a very large number of words.

Does this pedagogic facilitation save time only in the learning of Esperanto? Of course not; the fact that such word formation sharpens the learner's ability to perceive word structure means that learning some Esperanto first speeds up a learner's subsequent acquisition of a foreign language, the so-called propaedeutic effect. Based on this relatively old discovery, some of us have taken up foreign language teaching initiatives in Europe and Asia. Our traditional partner UNESCO has explicitly encouraged this component of our programmes in connection with the International Year of Languages. Esperanto serves as a unique resource for the heightening of language awareness, then.

Language awareness is not just a factor in foreign language learning. All environmentalists recognize that if we are to sustainably raise the quality of our social and psychological environment, we need to cultivate awareness of how we are connected to our physical and mental surroundings. Contributing as it does to such cultivation, Esperanto goes beyond mere usefulness as a foreign language learning facilitator.

Consider, for example, measures for maximizing public access to the legal system that stress the language facilitation issue even in the case of a single language. The United States under Jimmy Carter initiated plain language legislation making it mandatory to post plain language descriptions of the responsibilities of the administration and the citizen's rights. The movement of India's dalits - the Hindu system's former "untouchables" - for social dignity has been pressing for a reversal of elite-driven vocabulary opacity in academic and official texts in Indian languages. In Japan there have been some successes in expanding the space, in publicly visible written material, for the use of the relatively easy-to-read syllabic characters. Only initiatives based on the prototypically easy link language Esperanto make it meaningful to seek a common thread - and a connection with language rights - in these attempts to maximize the transparency of language use even in monolingual contexts.

Why raise such points in a discussion of the inadequacy of the formal construal of the right of citizens to use their mother tongue in communications with the state? I am coming from the idea that the crisis management mode often leads us into panic-driven inappropriate responses. The world is indeed losing many languages, and many individuals are experiencing the personal loss of mother tongues and assimilation into more powerful speech communities. Even in the face of this crisis, it would be a mistake to confine ourselves to the important - but too narrowly law-focused - enterprise of viewing the notion of language rights (in the governmental domain, construed as including education) simply in terms of the right to use the mother tongue. Even an entirely successful campaign to promote formal equality of rights is unlikely to bring about substantive democracy.

It would have been possible to illustrate this claim by mentioning what has and has not followed from the laws that were supposed to help the Dalits, the best known victims in India's history. But time constraints make it inappropriate to invoke material that will look opaque to many of you: I would like to reason with you on the basis of what looks rational in the light of examples you will not find opaque.

Let us then consider Canada's method of translating its Francophone and Anglophone populations into formal equality since the so-called quiet revolution of the sixties. A recent study by Sherry Simon shows1 that government sponsored literary translations strike readers in Quebec as clumsy and overzealous. Given this reflex reaction, those who want to write - and read - authentic translations are compelled to find ways around this response, and to fashion alternative ways of translating.

Governments, being astute, easily come up with tricks so that mechanically speaking they can implement the feel-good legislation that many of us pin our hopes on. If they implement future mother tongue conservation laws by arranging for bureaucratic, xeroxlike mass translation from powerful languages, minority language speakers will only appear to have access to their mother tongue - without being able to receive serious input in it in the official (including the educational) domain. We need intellectual tools capable of diagnosing as pathological such non-serious implementation of linguistic human rights legislation. The economics-focused social science approach to the problem, though an important advance, does not provide the right diagnostics in such scenarios.

Minority speech communities need to increase their self-confidence to the point of discursive creativity: they need to make sure their ideas are articulated and heard. We in the Esperanto movement take the position that such a process must involve not just their mother tongues per se, but also the necessary negotiation between easy and difficult registers within the languages they use. It is in this connection that we see some relevance for the linguistic element awareness enhancing function of Esperanto at the substantive interface between the social science approaches and the humanities approaches to our shared academic concerns. This is not the time to inform you about the interdisciplinary "substantivist" approach to these issues developed by some of us in and around technical linguistics. Instead, I thank you for your attention to these introductory remarks; I say hello to Geneva, which gave the world Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structural linguistics, and I remember his brother René de Saussure, who was responsible for our sophisticated understanding of the versatility of word formation in Esperanto. By way of greeting and thanking the organizers of this symposium, I come to the real point - which is to hand over the microphone, and the discursive rights at this symposium, to the real speakers.

1 Simon, Sherry. 2006. Translating Montreal: Episodes in the life of a divided city. Montreal and Kingston/ London/ Ithaca: McGill-Queen's University Press.


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