World Conference on Linguistic Rights
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
in the “CENTER,” the Magazine of PEN Center USA WEST, Fall