Giving our children sustainable futures through multilingual education: Vanuatu’s UN Ambassador speaks on International Mother Languages DayPosted: February 23, 2017
Speech by Odo Tevi, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Vanuatu to the United Nations, New York, in Commemoration of the International Mother Language Day, 21st February 2017
I have the honour to provide remarks this evening on the important theme: “Towards Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education”. This topic is timely given that we are celebrating the ‘International Mother Language Day’ today.
This is also important as we are embarking on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. The implementation of this Agenda will depend largely on how we understand different cultural dynamics and multiple settings; and also how we communicate our vision and strategies. Therefore, the understanding of different languages is critical for the success and realization of the 2030 Agenda.
The Importance of Language
The importance of languages is well documented. As we all know, it facilitates understanding and communication amongst the same cultures and also between different cultures within and across countries.
Neurophysiologists and linguists now recognize the brain and health benefits of growing up in a multi-cultural world.
Language is more than communication – it influences our culture and our thought processes. More often, we see the world from the categories of our language.
In a multilateral environment such as the United Nations, is a clear testament of how different cultures and languages are at play – it employs six official languages. For us at the United Nations, understanding diverse languages is therefore an important instrument for promoting and maintaining global peace, security, human rights and development. In other words, it leads to the realisation of the UN Charter.
Accepting multilingualism promotes inclusive development, good citizenship and participation. These are important cornerstones for a successful democracy. It is therefore important that we promote languages as a vital tool for education and democracy.
The Pacific Cultures and Languages – Melanesia
The Pacific is broadly defined into three main ethnic groups: Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. Within these groups there are many cultures as defined by its multiple languages and practices.
These societies cultural landscape have changed considerably since the turn of the century. First with the contact of the Western world (missionaries and traders) and was followed by colonisation by major Western Powers. These were mainly: France, Germany, United Kingdom and United States of America. All these powers and earlier contacts have major influence in these countries cultures and languages. After Independence, English and French became the official languages of these countries.
These countries are faced with new global challenges that affect their cultures and prospects. The two primary ones are globalization and climate change.
The biggest challenge facing these countries is climate change. For some countries, they have low lying atolls and if climate change is not addressed adequately, could lead to loss of some these countries. These then could affect their cultures and languages as they may have to find a new home to live – their identity, if not managed well, could be lost in this process.
My country Vanuatu with a population of 274,000, has about 113 local languages – many of them with dialects and sub-dialects. On top of these languages, it also has three official languages: Bislama, English and French. In per capita terms, we are the most linguistically and culturally diverse groups in the world.
This should be seen positively as a form of cultural wealth or riches that are one aspect of a very rich cultural situation whose variations are just about as complex as the linguistic one. If worldwide wealth was calculated in terms of linguistic and cultural variations and complexity compared to the size of the population, Vanuatu would be classed as the richest country in the world. These diverse languages are also seen in other parts of Melanesia like Papua New Guinea.
Just like all countries in the world, in Melanesia and ni-Vanuatu, ‘Language is Identity’. In the modern world overseas, a passport is your identity, but in the real worlds of Melanesia, identity is a lot more profound and complex. In Vanuatu, ‘Language and Lineage Link you to your Land’ – the ‘4 L’s of Identity’ – Land/Language/Lineage/Links. Out of your land, language and lineage (laen) comes your kastom and your identity.
There are between 6,000– 7,000 languages spoken in the world today (the difference in estimated numbers depends upon how one actually defines a ‘language’). Out of these, 1500 of those languages are spoken in Melanesia (West Papua, PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kanaky/New Caledonia, and western Fiji), so Melanesia represents between 20-25% of all the languages of the world. That is an amazingly high number for a relatively small population. (When compared to the population of the rest of the world – Melanesia has a total population of about 10 million; the world has a total population of about 7.5 billion).
Melanesian languages are traditionally oral, not written languages – and the spoken word is still more respected more widely across Melanesia than the written word. Not all languages are the same – each one is the product of a particular long history guided by (and helping to form) its culture.
Some languages are specialised or are ‘better’ at certain topics than others – for example, it may be rather difficult talking about space rockets or computer digital technology in languages from Vanuatu, because certain words and concepts do not exist. In the same sway, there are certain profound spiritual or cultural topics that are easier to talk about in ni-Vanuatu or Melanesian languages than in, say, French or English, because in French or English the Melanesian concepts and words do not exist.
English may be a better language to do international business. French may be a better language to discuss artistic and poetic endeavour. Ni-Vanuatu languages are definitely better than both these international languages if one is back in one’s home and needs to talk about the important things in life: Land, Language, Culture and Identity.
Our language is our identity – or a major part of it.
As you can see, the importance of languages or multilingualism cannot be understated. They defined who we are – our identity.
In the connected and globalised world, the importance of languages has ever more becoming important. It is therefore important that we cherished and promote our diversity through our languages.
The importance of understanding and embracing different languages will help us realize the vision and goals of the UN Charter.
Let me end with a simple but powerful proverb from my Raga language: “Ira ratagihi mai sinobu, gim ilo vudolua take gim langai vudolua”. In its deepest meaning, this translates as “do not be complacent in life but be open-minded so that you can unlock the doors of wisdom and progress”.
Accepting cultural diversity and promoting multilingual education is therefore a wise and progressive path for our societies to take.
Happy International Mother Languages Day to you all!
 Paul Kay, University of California, Berkeley