Why are languages missing from the Sustainable Development Goals?

By Dr Wine Tesseur, Post Doctoral Research Assistant in Modern Languages and European Studies

This blog has been translated to over 15 languages with the support of ‘The Language Industry’. See the translated versions.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to put the most vulnerable populations first and to leave no one behind. This implies communicating in a multiplicity of languages, yet the SDGs are silent on language issues.

Although proponents see the realisation of the SDGs as emerging from dialogue with vulnerable populations, it is unclear how sustainable, two-way democratic communication will be ensured.

The absence of any mention of language in the SDGs was the topic of a United Nations Symposium titled ‘Language, the Sustainable Development Goals and Vulnerable Populations’, held in New York on 11-12 May 2017. It was the second event organised by a Study Group on Language and the United Nations, an independent group of scholars and practitioners.

As a researcher on the project ‘The Listening Zones of NGOs: Languages and Cultural Knowledge in Development Programmes’, jointly organised by INTRAC (the International NGO Training and Research Centre), the University of Reading and the University of Portsmouth, I participated in the symposium and contributed a paper on the role of languages in the development work of international UK-based NGOs. I was curious to find out more about the work of other researchers as well as practitioners working on the role of languages in development. In this blog, I share some thoughts and insights on the discussions and debates that took place over these two stimulating days.

Wine Tesseur (University of Reading, UK) "Listening in what language? The role of languages in international NGOs’ development programmes"

Posted by Michel Anne Frederic DeGraff on Thursday, 11 May 2017

The role of languages in delivering the SDGs

In the opening discussion, Michael Ten-Pow, Permanent Representative of Guyana to the United Nations, pointed out that the SDGs include mechanisms for implementation that specifically focus on the inclusion of vulnerable groups. For example, SDG 2 ‘Zero Hunger’ ensures ‘access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round’. SDG 4, ‘Quality Education’, aims to ‘eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education’. Yet there are no mechanisms that take into account the language needs of vulnerable populations.

Furthermore, Ten-Pow posited that provision of language services at the UN is often taken for granted, and that there exists an implicit assumption that policy and prescription will automatically reach other levels of the aid chain.

Cristina Diez, UN representative of ATD Fourth World movement, highlighted that 99% of negotiations on the SDGs were done in English, and 100% of negotiation outcomes were written in English. We have already excluded billions of people, she noted, and yet this agenda is for those who have not had the opportunity to have their voice heard. In delivering the SDGs, it is therefore critical to reflect on processes to include those most vulnerable.

Does indirect language form a barrier?

A large majority of presentations and discussions at the symposium focused on education. Often linked explicitly to SDG 4, many speakers presented examples of projects on literacy and mother-tongue education for refugees, migrants, and other language minority groups.

But one of the most well-received papers, and one that will undoubtedly stay with participants for a long time, was that of Cornelius Wambi Gulere, read out by a colleague, on ‘Cultures that use indirect language today face the challenge of being misunderstood’.

Himself a teacher and development worker from Uganda, Wambi Gulere introduced some of the characteristics of the Lusoga language, which is dominated by riddling and ‘proverbiage’.

Wambi Gulere’s argument was that speakers of indirect languages often lose out on many opportunities because they are regularly misunderstood by their development partners, and that if the SDGs truly want to emerge from dialogue, more attention needs to be paid to these specific language features.

Cornelius Wambi Gulere (teacher and development worker) "Cultures that use indirect language today face the challenge of being misunderstood" + Q&A

Posted by Michel Anne Frederic DeGraff on Thursday, 11 May 2017

How can the Study Group promote good practice to influence the UN?

Although I would certainly consider this year’s symposium a success in terms of forming a stronger network of practitioners and academics that share project results and ideas on these issues, there is a long way to go in effectively influencing UN policy and practice, as well as opening up the symposium itself to participants from more vulnerable groups.
Firstly, if the Study Group and its symposium are to be seen as advocates for multilingualism, more thought should be given to the languages used in these initiatives.

The conclusion in the report from last year’s symposium stated that the absence of any discussion on language in the SDGs is due to a more general failure to recognise the consequences of linguistic diversity, and that this has been exacerbated by the rise of English as a lingua franca, which has facilitated communication among elites.

Perhaps then, it is necessary for the Study Group to make its own position on this clearer.

The symposium, as well as the website of the Study Group, are hosted in English. The large majority of people present belonged to elite groups (Western academics and NGO staff), even more so due to stricter US entry requirements, which prevented some presenters to attend the conference in person.

If more thought is given to how the symposium and Study Group can be more linguistically and culturally diverse, their message to the UN would be accompanied by an example of good practice. This would give more credibility and authority, and the initiatives would have greater chances of influencing UN policy.
Secondly, there is a need to give more visibility to a great deal of language negotiations that are already going on, at the UN, through local initiatives, as well as in the work of international NGOs, which is one of the emerging findings of our ‘Listening Zones of NGOs’ project and that I discussed in my paper.

For the SDGs specifically, an initiative such as that of Ntiokam Divine to translate the SDGs into African languages, is well worth giving more visibility. So far, Divine has succeeded in having the SDGs translated into 32 local languages of his native Cameroon, as well as into local languages of Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria. It seems odd that the initiative, which at least some UN representatives are aware of, wasn’t given any visibility during the two-day symposium.
Overall, participating in this symposium has been a unique and insightful experience. As a linguist, I am pleased to see issues of language diversity and communication be given greater attention.

One important message that I take from this conference is the need to continue negotiating the meaning of the SDGs and of development. A key contribution that I believe could emerge from our ‘Listening Zones’ project is a number of case studies that would demonstrate how language negotiation has contributed to various stages of development projects and outcomes. Rather than turning language into another tick-box exercise, such an approach would help raise awareness of the important and complex role of language in development, and would help existing good practice to be celebrated.

Wine Tesseur works as a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Reading. Her primary research interest is in language and translation policy at NGOs. Please send your questions, comments and feedback to w.tesseur@reading.ac.uk

This blog post was originally posted on the INTRAC website.

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