Today, 22nd February 2022 is Global Language Advocacy Day. As a native English speaker growing up in the UK, I am lucky that I have never experience language being a barrier.
As translators, interpreters and linguists, however, we work each day to break down the linguistic and cultural barriers between groups of people. The volunteer translations that I have done for Translators without Borders and UNV Online have highlighted an issue that is critical for so many people across the world. I started researching how many languages there are in the world. The answer is not simple but I did find this fascinating article detailing why it is so hard to count the number of languages – just like languages themselves change, so does the number of languages as new languages are found, or the last speaker sadly passes on.
According to Ethnologue, in 2021, there were 7,139 languages spoken across the world. In a world with 195 universally recognised countries (I realise this figure is controversial), it is not hard to see why so many people might find language a barrier in life.
The impacts of not speaking or understanding the language of a country – or of official documents are not being translated into a language you understand – are wide ranging. Here are just a few examples:
· Higher than average poverty rates
· Lower than average access to education
· Issues understanding printed information produced by official bodies
· Issues accessing healthcare
· Issues making informed medical decisions
· Lower access to regular income
· Issues accessing support and services from government and regional bodies
· Affects access to voting
· Affects access to volunteering
· Affects access to community groups
· Issues engaging with community groups
I have become abundantly aware of the impact of the pandemic on the constantly changing linguistic landscape. Although we have almost been living with this new vocabulary for two years now, if you do not speak the official languages of a country, and if healthcare material is not published in a language you understand, you are at more risk of failing to understand the measures you can take to protect yourself and your family. This is true of COVID-19 – but also of so many other health issues that affect populations worldwide.
So today, on Global Language Advocacy Day, it is a day to reflect on the delicate tightrope that we need to walk, to protect languages and cultures, whilst at the same time ensuring that linguistic barriers limiting quality of life, and access to services, education, and healthcare, are steadily broken down.