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  • Letters to Language
  • David Crystal and Wesley M. Collins

What do we do with an International Year of Languages?*

March 14, 2008

To the Editor:

The news that there was to be an International Year of Languages in 2008 was received with great acclaim around the linguistic world—once they heard about it! I saw no announcement in the press, and learned about it almost by accident. And the general public is still largely ignorant of it. UN Years are an excellent idea, but they are evidently not being promoted in a way that makes them unmissable and unforgettable.

Another complication is that for each chronological year there is not one but several UN Years. In 2008 our Languages Year is in competition with the International Years of Sanitation, the Reef, Planet Earth, and the Potato. I mean it when I say ‘competition’. Human beings are able to take in only so much information, and are willing and able to devote attention, time, and money to only a tiny number of the laudable projects that are placed before them. So we have to find ways of getting people to pay attention to language. What initiatives would make a permanent impact on the consciousness of the human race as a whole, so that it would never forget the important role languages play in its wellbeing?

I am a great believer in copying the successes of others. How have other enterprises behaved when faced with the problem of how to grab the attention of the public? I have noted five main ways. The linguistic community does only two of these, and even those in a very limited way.

Celebratory days: Religions have festivals, countries have national days, families have days for mothers, fathers, and more. There is Halloween, Shakespeare’s Birthday, Bastille Day. We have World Languages Day (September 26) and World Mother Language Day (February 21). But establishing a day is not enough. We have to ask: how do we celebrate it? And how do others celebrate their days? With parades, displays, dressing up, badges, cards, presents. This is something that, at an international level, we do not do. I am not suggesting we should all put on fancy dress. But there are other ways. Take cards. I would love to send a card to friends for World Languages Day. I do not know of any. Or take displays. Why not a logo-variation from Google on Language Days?

Locations to visit: If you are interested in science, you can visit a science museum. Plants and animals, a natural history museum. Painting, an art gallery. In London there are over 300 major exhibition centers that keep their subject matter in front of the public—textiles, transport, maritime, musical instruments, dolls, and so forth. But for languages there is nothing, in country after country, other than the occasional local institute devoted to a single language, and even that is unusual. One such location devoted to languages in general will be the Casa de les Llengües in Barcelona, scheduled to open in 2010. There need to be others. Don Osborn is collecting data on language museums for IYL 2008. You can see where he’s up to at .

Awards: How does literature become front-page news? Or painting? Or film? Or economics? By giving them prizes, awards, medals—most famously, the Nobel Prizes, and the huge Templeton Prize for progress in religion. Several countries do their own thing. The UK has its Turner Prize for contemporary art. In the US, there are no fewer than twenty-one categories of Pulitzer Prize. In relation to language, there is next to nothing—just the small Lin-guapax Award and a few others in specific areas, such as translation. Why aren’t there more, and why aren’t there any really well-known ones?

The value of an award is not its monetary value, which can be quite low, or even nonexistent. Rather, it provides professional recognition to an individual or institution, motivation for action to that person’s or institution’s peers, and an opportunity for publicity for the subject that the prize-winner professes. Prizes keep a topic in...


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