6 July, 2022


Towards A World Summit On Multilingualism

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

“In the earliest days of philosophy, there was a saying “As above, so below”, by which they meant as in the heavens, so also on earth. And later, this was countered with the view that “as below so above”, meaning as on earth, among human beings, so also with the gods in heavens. I would adapt this and say that as in the political domain, so also in cyberspace. And in cyberspace, so also is there a feedback to politics and society ‘below’.

I speak as the representative of a country and a society, Sri Lanka, in which the policy of multilingualism was not adopted in time. The absence of such a policy was one of the factors that fed into an armed conflict that lasted thirty years and consumed many lives, tens of thousands of lives, setting back the development and progress of my country for an incalculable period. I also speak as one whose country has now officially adopted a policy of trilingualism. So we have been through the worst consequences of the absence of multilingualism as a policy.

This brings me to an important point I want to make in support of our call and the roadmap for a World Conference. I believe that it would be helpful to build the momentum, as Ambassador Yai of Benin said we need to build the momentum, if we hammer home a message that a policy of multilingualism is an essential component for a policy of sustainable peace in national societies, in regions and on the planet. It is a policy of multilingualism that can be part of the overall project of conflict prevention, and where conflict prevention has not been successful, of conflict resolution and conflict transformation. Today in Sri Lanka, the policy of trilingualism has been adopted as part of an effort at post-war reconciliation. But I must say that the decades long delay in adopting a policy of multilingualism has meant that even when it has officially been embraced, the human resources capacity to implement such a policy has already been damaged. We simply do not have enough teachers; we do not have the supply, though there is a social demand.

So it is important to make the point that the call for multilingualism is not simply some exotic slogan. It is a call, or it is part of the call, for peace, for good governance, for the prevention of conflict and the resolution of conflict when it exists. Thus we can upgrade the level of political attention that is paid to the programme of multilingualism.

Moving beyond that I would say that the call for multilingualism is a call which avoids two types of dangers, two extremes. One is that of monolithism. Multilingualism is distinct from and an answer to monolithism of the sort of the former Minister of Culture of France -Jack Lang- cautioned against, when he talked about the tendency of the homogenization of culture, the monopoly of language -he was talking of course about the English language- and the tendency towards monolithism. His cautioning of course, consciously or unconsciously, built on the cultural critique that had originated from our part of the world, from the Global South, especially from Africa. I think the importance of culture as a component of resistance, and conversely, of culture as a tool of domination, the case has already been made by outstanding thinkers such as Amílcar Cabral. But we are happy that Jack Lang made the point, perhaps most powerfully for the first time in the West. So multilingualism is distinct from and opposed to, and countervails, the tendency towards monolithism.

On the other hand, multilingualism is also a preventive against antagonistic particularisms.  By multilingualism we are not making a call for a Biblical Tower of Babel where people speak in their own language and are unable to understand each other. That would be the case if we do not embrace the policy of multilingualism. Because when there is no policy of multilingualism then every sense of identity, however parochial, tends to assert itself in an antagonistic form towards what it considers the dominant language and culture and also almost inevitably towards each other.

So we are therefore opposed to two types of monopoly or monolithism: on the one the hand, that of the dominant cultures, the dominant languages and the other, the kind of monopoly that every local or regional language tends to impose on its neighbors.

So politically, we must be very clear. There will be no global multilingualism if there isn’t a national policy of multilingualism. When we talk about the importance or the use of the mother tongue, we must always speak in the plural, the mother-tongues. Because in my country, Sri Lanka, we have an example of how this necessary struggle for the transition to teaching in the mother-tongues actually became a transition to the language of the numerical, ethno-religious and linguistic majority, to the exclusion of the mother-tongue of the minorities or of the mother-tongues of the minorities. So one cannot oppose the monopoly of hegemonic language globally or language that comes from outside while practicing a similar policy within ones society.

Thus, our call for multilingualism must be part of a consistent call for, and practice for pluralism. And pluralism is, as we know, inextricably intertwined with a notion of an authentic democracy or democratization.

Globalization and its frontier, cyberspace, I might even say its vanguard, cyberspace, must be a process that brings people, cultures, languages together without submitting them to the dominance of any one particular powerful language or culture, while also avoiding a Hobbesian version of a “war of all against all” in the field of languages and cultures. I think this is best done by representation, by a policy of pluralism, where everybody feels represented and accommodated and were cyberspace is truly a mirror.

But there also has to be, again to use the term of Prof. Adama Samassékou and Ambassador Yai, a normative element and I think that the struggle for multilingualism, at the level of the United Nations, must eventually manifest itself in some fairly clear cut conventions, instruments which require ratification. States have to commit to such policies. And there has to be perhaps Rapporteurs at the level of the United Nations who will report on the adherence to these policies, because policies of multilingualism or multilingualism may be only tokenistic. They have to be however practiced -not imposed, but there has to be a verifiable set of agreements or conventions. This I think is something we have to strive towards. It is something for the future, but there has to be a more purposive hardening of the edge of our project.”

*Presentation of Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka On November 23rd, 2012, at the International Symposium on Multilingualism in Cyberspace.   Dayan Jayatilleka participated as a panelist at the International Symposium on Multilingualism in Cyberspace organized by Maaya -World Network for Linguistic Diversity. The three-day symposium took place at the CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Politicians must try to keep away from spoiling “race relations” and do everything to seamlessly promote integration.

    Those said, in a global village where job opportunities rely on “Fluency in English Language” in almost 5/8 of the world why not revert back to English as the main language of instruction (period immediate to independence) and Sinhala/Tamil optional and may be another Asian/European.

    This way society interacts from kindergarten to university as equal individuals.

  • 0

    Why don’t you stop taking up space in this and other journals with your vacuous nonsense which does nothing but prove, if proof be needed, that you are one of the bigger hypocrites in the ranks of the Rajapaksa horde?

    If you are trying to impress unsuspecting readers who are unaware of your collaboration with one of the vilest and most violent and racist of governments, I rather doubt you’d succeed. Why don’t you affect a role reversal and get Mahinda (and his family) to shave their heads and sit at your feet like good little acolytes while you preach to them? Might work because their monumental violence might not preclude a display of their continuing stupidity!

  • 0

    Question is whether we are at all going to have a world summit ahead of us being under prevailing lawless, disrespectful, anti-human, abusive by all means atmosphere under the current rulers (incl. so called pseudo professionals like you Dayan)?

  • 0

    I excuse you.

    don’t ask for what.

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