Multilingualism – a gateway to sustainable development

A guest post by Georgiana Epure @GeorgianaEpure.

“If I forget my native speech,
And the songs that my people sing
What use are my eyes and ears?
What use is my mouth?”

(Alitet Nemtushkin)

It’s been two years since I left Romania and moved in the UK to continue my studies. I left my home and for approximately seven months I was living under the impression that this had not changed who I am. However, when I woke up on the 23rd of April I felt different. On April 23rd it’s my birthday. I have always had a special ‘anniversary feeling’. I guess it’s a bit overwhelming knowing that not only am I growing up, but so are my ideas, my projects, my plans and dreams. However, on that 23rd of April, I did not have that special feeling, even though dozens of my colleagues at the university wished me ‘Happy birthday’. I did not have that feeling until I heard the first ‘La mulți ani’, the Romanian equivalent of `Happy birthday!`. My identity and the way I feel is linked to my mother language. It’s moments like this when you realize that Nelson Mandela was right when he said ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart’. However, I was lucky to experience this ‘incapability of being myself’ on that day only.

In this moment, in this world, there are thousands, millions of people that are living my 23rd of April every day. People who cannot be themselves in their own countries, in their own towns, because they cannot communicate their ideas and plans and visions of their worlds through their mother-tongue in the public area. There are 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. That’s 7,000 ways of thinking, 7,000 sets of traditions, 7,000 codes of knowledge and know-how. More than half of these 7,000 codified ways of communicating, being part of the community and feeling alive, are endangered. They are likely to die in a few generations time at the expense of the few languages that have been given the ‘pride’ to be recognized as viable ways of communicating in the public domain, in schools and in the digital world.

TheSDGsWe have a vision for a better world. Actually, we have more than a vision. We have a plan. We are dreamers with a plan – a viable, strategic plan that allows us not only to imagine our world and lives as John Lennon once described, but to make it real and ‘live our lives in peace’, and ‘live for today’. This ambitious, high-reaching plan has a name: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 goals tackle not only life threatening conditions but identity threats as well. This is why this blueprint of a just, socially inclusive and greener world, cannot lack multilingualism and cultural diversity – key tools in articulating its targets. Sustainable development is not sustainable and is certainly not progressive if it does not recognize the role that cultural and linguistic diversity play out in everyone’s lives.

Languages are the key tools of communication. They promote cultural dialogue and inspire solidarity through understanding and tolerance. They are essential in accelerating the United Nations’ vision of a peaceful and secure world, 70 years after its establishment. Multilingualism is of strategic importance to advance social integration and social justice for all people; to preserve their cultural heritage and historical memories, their sense of identity in a globalized world. Using, or not using, a language can open doors, or close them, to numerous communities in all places of the world.

SDG01Since 2000, and the start of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the world has been concentrating its efforts on ending poverty. The world that the SDGs envision starts from eradicating poverty as well. Multilingualism is key in ensuring the success of SDG1. This is because one’s ability to obtain food and income, engage with trade, social and economic institutions is conditioned by the language skills that one possesses. In a world where countries’ borders are more permeable than ever and migration is changing people’s lives, respect for multilingualism means economic integration and empowerment. Promoting cultural and linguistic diversity means making the right decision between integration and marginalization. Multilingualism advances people’s access to the market, basic financial services and new technologies (Target 1.4). In doing so it also contributes to meeting the targets that SDG8 sets: promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

SDG03Lifting people up from poverty and hunger goes hand in hand with improving their health (SDG 3). Multilingualism is vital for ensuring that programs for combating HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, neglected tropical diseases and communicable diseases (Target 3.3) are delivered in languages that people can understand. This links to the need for inclusive and stimulating education for everyone. Literacy is crucial for education and development. It plays a strategic role in improving health and family planning, preventing HIV/AIDS, reducing poverty and promoting active citizenship. Needless to say that language is intrinsically bounded to literacy.

SDG04SDG4 aims to achieve quality education for all. To do this, it is important to acknowledge the complex situation of language minorities in communities around the world. The choice of the language of instruction has significant impact on who has access to education. The SDG agenda implicitly promotes a multilingual approach in literacy programs to offer education opportunities for all. For example, the use of mother tongues would benefit children’s attendance and performance in school.

Put it another way, multilingualism advances cooperation and respect for cultural diversity. It helps build peaceful, healthy and smart communities. As the former UNESCO Director-General, Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, nicely put it, “Languages are essential to the identity of groups and individuals and to their peaceful coexistence. They constitute a strategic factor of progress towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between the global and the local context. Only if multilingualism is fully accepted can all languages find their place in our globalized world. In response to this, UNESCO has been working to establish policies and practices to promote linguistic diversity and access to education for all. In their paper, “Education in a Multilingual World”, UNESCO calls for emboldening three principles. First, promote mother-tongue instruction as a means of increasing educational quality of the learners and teachers. Second, allow for bilingual and/or multilingual education at all levels as a means of promoting social, gender equality and as a key element of linguistically diverse societies. Third, acknowledge language as a vital component of inter-cultural education that promotes understanding between different population groups and ensures respect for fundamental rights.

SDG11The post-2015 agenda pictures a world where all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, and global citizenship (Target 4.7). Multilingualism is vital in articulating people’s capability to exercise their rights. As we have all learnt through our experiences, we derive security from our membership in a group that can provide us with a cultural identity. It makes sense then that preserving endangered languages and promoting multilingualism must be part of the sustainable development strategy and our efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural heritage (Target 11.4). Developing language policies to ensure balanced communication between different ethnic and social groups is a prerequisite for advancing conflict resolution, peace and democracy.

Lifelong education is enriched by multilingualism, as it is key in getting the most out of the knowledge societies. This is why promoting universal access to information and communication technologies through the use of numerous languages is essential. As the International Year of Languages (2008) highlighted, English dominates scientific discourse, sidelining other national, local languages and dialects. This may diminish the flow of ideas and scientific enquiry, leading to a loss of opportunities for international dialogue and mutual understanding.

SDG13Languages are bridges of knowledge and ensure the transfer of know-how between communities. This is of particular importance for local communities that share natural resources and need to work together and find a common strategy for managing them. Thus, multilingualism is imperative even for combating climate change and its impacts (SDG13), to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of natural resources (SGD15). SDG15Languages are powerful and they matter for sustainable development.

To conclude, there are almost 8 billion living souls in the world today, who reach one another in more than 7,000 languages. Languages are means to knowing their lives, needs, dreams and hopes. They are unique links between communities and have the power to connect people’s ideas, hearts and souls. The gateway to sustainable development resides in languages because they are ways of feeling and perceiving the universe, as the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, once said. The sustainable, developed international society that we dream of cannot succeed without recognizing the importance of promoting multilingualism and cultural diversity in the SDG strategy.


georgiana epureGeorgiana Epure is an International Relations student and research assistant with the Intervention and International Society at the University of Leeds, UK. She is also a Young Leader in the Women Deliver Young Leaders Program and an advocate for gender equality sexual and reproductive health rights. You can contact her @GeorgianaEpure.

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One thought on “Multilingualism – a gateway to sustainable development

  1. Education must give the knowledge, skills and competencies which are essential to prepare good and productive citizens for effective leadership and management for the country and help them to become global citizens too.
    For a better future, Education Matters!
    For a better education, Multilingual Education Matters!


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