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March 1998 - Issue No. #29 (p.16 - 17)
A large number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has produced a Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights to be submitted tothe United Nations for adoption as an International Convention.
What have linguistic rights got to do with EFL? David Crystal writes of how language contributes both to the identity and intelligibility of an individual. Everyone has a right to a language identity: to use a language for full participation as a member of a linguistic community. Linguistic identity can, of course, be a complex issue, and people may belong to more than one linguistic community. As citizens of a country, they may use the official language(s) of that country and claim a national identity; but they may also be members of an ethnic community which uses a different language and has a distinct cultural identity. Both the national language and the community language may express aspects of the individual's identity, as well as making the individual intelligible within the nation and the community. In other cases an individual may feel that identity is most clearly expressed by a regional or ethnic community language.
Language does not always imply identity. People also use language to achieve intelligibility in a wider community than their own ethnic, regional or national one. For an individual who identifies strongly with an ethnic or regional language community, a national language may be more a means of intelligibility than a feature of identity. Likewise, because of the role of English as a language of international communication, many EFL instructors are teaching English to learners whose aim is to achieve international intelligibility.
Considerations of identity and intelligibility have implications for our English teaching. In teaching English pronunciation, for example, I would aim to help my learners achieve a pronunciation that is intelligible to both native speakers and non-native international speakers of English. I would not, unless specifically requested, aim to help learners achieve "perfect" British or American accents: people often feel that how they speak is a part of their national or community identity, and, consciously or not, may choose to retain an accent that affirms that identity. Gillian Brown recommends that we should differentiate for our learners between a native-speaker pronunciation that the learner hears and a target pronunciation (for Spanish EFL learners, for example, an educated and intelligible Spanish speaker of English) that the learner aims for.
The World Federation of Modern Language Associations (FIPLV) has been concerned about language rights and the identity / intelligibility question for many years. FIPLV's statement of Fundamental Principles for a Universal Declaration on Language Rights, formulated in Pecs (Hungary) in 1991, sets forth the rights of every individual to learn and be taught up to three languages:
The FIPLV Pecs Declaration sees identity and intelligibility in a complementary relationship. This is in contrast to the view that the teaching of a language of international intelligibility, like English, is a threat to community or national languages; a viewpoint not borne out by the facts. David Crystal writes: "Whether Sorbian survives in Germany or Galician in Spain has to do with the local political history of those countries, and with the regional dominance of German and Spanish respectively, and bears no immediate relationship to the standing of German or Spanish on the world stage. Nor is it easy to see how the arrival of English as a global language could directly influence the future of these or most other minority languages". But people do not always base their opinions and actions on facts. As David Graddol puts it, "English is rarely the main, or direct cause of language loss, but its global high profile and close association with social and economic changes in developing countries make it a target for those campaigning against the destruction of cultural diversity which language extinction implies". It is important, then, that teachers of English understand the facts and support the complementarity of "identity languages" and "intelligibility languages".
The current draft of the Universal Declaration has several problems:
It is very possible that the United Nations General Assembly will eventually adopt a Convention embodying a Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. Do you agree with the principle of such a declaration? Do you want to help make it a more inclusive document which takes into account individual rights, the rights of all sorts of linguistic groups, and the reality of cultural differences and choices? If so, now is the time to make your voice heard.
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