Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Language and knowledge flows

Yesterday, in Hyderabad, there was a seminar on "Knowledge Society and Uncertain Futures", organized by STEPS - Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability - "a global research and policy engagement centre, funded by the ESRC, bringing together development studies with science and technology studies."

STEPS is collaborating in a series of consultations in India: "Knowledge Society Debates: A series of events exploring science, technology and innovation in India, 5-13 January 2009".

The premise (detailed in the Background Paper) is:

Though divided by colonial legacies – and further separated by media emphasis on today’s techno-economic rivalries – India and Europe present many parallels in their engagements with the knowledge society. They share an awareness of culture and history (with all their contingencies), a vibrantly critical politics of technology, and an imperative for inclusion and a plural understanding of the public good.

The key speakers at the seminar were: D Balasubramanian, Brian Wynne, Sheila Jasanoff, V Balaji, Shiv Visvanathan, and G Haragopal. More about (most of) them in the seminar announcement.

I (of course!) intervened. Here's more or less what I said:

My name is Giridhar Rao; I am from the World Esperanto Association. No surprise then that I focus on language.

Seems to me that neither the deliberations here nor those in the European Commission report that Dr Wynne has authored, have focused on the link between language and knowledge flows. I wish to highlight two domains where this link is clear: indigenous knowledges and higher education.

A considerable amount of knowledge about biodiversity management is encoded in indigenous languages. This cultural diversity is fast disappearing, faster than biological diversity. For this reason too, it is important to safeguard and promote the linguistic human rights of indigenous peoples - who, as Shiv Visvanathan has reminded us, are very much our contemporaries. And all the research shows that mother-tongue medium education is the most effective countermeasure to this "linguistic genocide", as Tove Skutnabb-Kangas calls those policies that result in the death of languages.

In the domain of indigenous knowledges, one sees clearly the link between knowledge flows and language.

Language is a bottleneck in knowledge flows in the domain of higher education and research.

In India, poor overall teaching in schools means poor cognitive skills in English - the language of higher education in India. In applied sciences like agriculture this disjunct sets up its own barriers to knowledge flows - between the home language and English: the farmer in the field and his son in the university cannot communicate with each other.

And in international scientific collaboration, there is considerable (anecdotal) evidence of disruptions in knowledge flows caused by language asymmetries.

Even in the European Union, where teaching is not poor, and where, for most citizens, the language of higher education is the home language, even there, language plays an important role in knowledge flows.

The Swiss economist François Grin in his 2005 report (in French), "Foreign language teaching as public policy", (summaries: Fr, Eo) estimates that every year the European Union transfers 25 billion euros - that's billion: 10 to the power 9 - 25 billion euros to the United Kingdom for language-related reasons. These include the sale of English-language learning materials; the 700,000 or so EU citizens who visit UK every year to learn English; and the savings for UK resulting from not having to teach foreign languages.

Thus, in vastly different areas of the human experience - from indigenous peoples in India to the European Union - one sees asymmetries and disruptions in knowledge flows because of language-related factors.

It's clear that both India and the European Union need to manage their complex multilingualism much better for more efficient, cost-effective and democratic knowledge flows.

And it is precisely at this point that one can point to the 120-year-old history of the Esperanto movement in creating more democratic communication between peoples. But that is a theme for another seminar.... :-)

Thank you.

No comments: