The World Conference on Linguistic Rights         

In early June of 1996 the World Conference on Linguistic Rights met in Barcelona.  The conference was attended by linguists, sociologists, historians, and legal scholars as well as by writers and journalists.  On behalf of almost ninety different states and institutions over two hundred delegates signed the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights.  During the official opening in the auditorium of the old Barcelona University the proclamation and reading of the Declaration was in four languages – English, French, Spanish, and Catalan.

I signed as a representative of PEN Center USA West.  At that moment I sensed how important and necessary this document is.  The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights represents many years of effort, extending through the preparation of twelve drafts.  There is hope that the document eventually will be accepted by all countries and linguistic groups.  International PEN grants to all the languages of the globe (an estimated 6,000) the same respect and encourages their mutual harmony.  A primary principles motivating this Declaration is the challenge of understanding individual and group differences and their relationship to the state as manifested in language.

The organizers chose Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, as the site of the conference.  This country within a country has its own language, Catalan, which is linguistically closer to Provençal French than to Castilian Spanish.  After Franco’s death in 1975 Catalan became one of the official languages of Spain.  I asked a Barcelona teacher in which language she teaches her students.  She answered that as a principle she teaches only in Catalan.  Students in Barcelona can choose Catalan or Spanish for their schooling.

Some delegates at the conference pointed out that it will not be easy to gain full acceptance of the Declaration because languages reflect political, economic, and cultural differences.  Cultural differences can color our understanding even when we speak the same language.  We talked about what it means to use language effectively, so that we can share our thoughts and hopes and overcome differences that lead to ruptures or even violence.  I also heard the opinion, “These people are talking nonsense.  They are all utopians.”  History seems to suggest that peace is, indeed, a utopian concept.  Nevertheless, there are those who insist that peace can be attained through education and public policy.

For example, Yèro Sylla, the director of linguistic research in the government of Senegal, said that European languages overpower Senegalians’ political life.  The country cannot succeed linguistically if local government is not managing the local language, because the official languages are communicating only horizontally and not vertically.

In summary, the linguistic principles under which we cooperate must be democratic, must maximize freedom for all people, must allow for a productive educational system, and must promote personal character development.  Maximizing human potential through language development is what we hope to achieve for all nations and all individuals.

Published: in the “CENTER,” the Magazine of PEN Center USA WEST, Fall 1996.



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