“The Ebola crisis was not just a health crisis, but a communication crisis,” explained Dr. Suzanne Romaine in her January lecture to the Sawyer Seminar on “Linguistic diversity and sustainability: Global language justice inside the doughnut.” Since only twenty percent of the Liberian population speaks English, she continued, posters meant to raise awareness of the disease and its prevention served only an elite minority segment of those affected. When language is not a priority issue during health crises, it can compound the destruction. This issue has cropped up in other countries, during other disasters. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, for example, information and aid was distributed in French, when ninety-five percent of the population speaks Creole.
Lack of access to information in one’s own language is debilitating even under normal circumstances, since ninety percent of the world’s languages are still excluding from schools. Dr. Romaine emphasized the importance of mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB MLE), which has been proven to be both more efficient than education in non-native languages, but also contributes to the social and economic well-being of minority language speakers. Countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Tanzania provide primary schooling in indigenous languages, and it has had a positive effect on the number of students completing their education.
Africa especially is one of the most critical regions for the revivification and sustainable development of linguistic and biological environments. It is a region rich in linguistic and biological diversity, but with these same communities economically impoverished. Dr. Romaine suggested the “doughnut model” for thinking about the correlation between social and economic conditions, and the place of language within that environment. Borrowing from Kate Raworth’s conception of human civilization as built upon social foundations and beneath environmental limits, Romaine places language at the very center of the model. If economics is the mother tongue of public policy, then Romaine says that economics must be multilingual.
The next day, the group was left with a number of questions regarding Romaine’s provocative linkage of linguistic and environmental diversity. Does linguistic diversity mean more speakers or more languages? What are the benefits of using metaphors like linguistic technology, linguistic economy, linguistic ecology? To what extent can we connect dominant languages like English to bio-economic problems such as monocropping?
I am particularly drawn to Romaine’s idea (slightly reframed) that economics is the pivotal force that connects linguistic and biodiversity. The migration of rural populations to the cities to find work; the extraction of resources from indigenous peoples’ lands; and the economic monoculture of English are all phenomena that touch on the capital-driven relationship between the languages we speak and the places in which we live. Promisingly, in pointing to the intersectionality of these issues, Romaine suggests ways in which we might address these problems in new ways. In other words, how can promoting linguistic diversity also promote economic and ecological well-being?
By Chloe Estep, Graduate Research Fellow in Global Language Justice at Columbia University.