Languages Without Borders

Celebrating, protecting and sharing linguistic and cultural diversity helps nurture unity and social cohesion. It builds communities with connections – despite geographic borders.

With digital technology making such connections easier than ever before, sharing a language can mean sharing cultural touchstones and works of creativity that strengthen these transnational bonds.

The UN has designated “language without borders” as the theme of International Mother Language Day 2020. This means protecting language diversity, while also celebrating language as a force for sustainable development and peace.

I’d like to use this as a jumping-off point to explore on how cultural expressions can link those in language groups together, building an understanding beyond borders. And of course, let’s share ideas for the place of libraries within this.

Culture in the Digital Environment

Since the emergence of the digital environment as a major new field for culture and creativity, it has been recognized that language groups form a sort of common “digital territory”. For the most part, this isn’t defined by nationality. Rather, people can consume a diverse range of digital content – be it news, information, culture, or entertainment – within their language groups, regardless of its country of origin.

In the digital age, physical borders are no longer as significant as languages… for example, the most visited website in Spain is YouTube, especially for content in Spanish or dubbed into Spanish that is not from Spain, but from other Spanish-speaking regions.

Culture in the Digital Environment: Assessing Impact in Latin America and Spain, Octavio Kulesz, UNESCO Policy and Research, 2017.

These “digital territories” can fast-track intercultural communication, sharing and understanding. Exposure to creative content – in an environment where this content is enabled, accessible and discoverable – can have a far-reaching impact.

Protecting Diversity, Promoting Diversity

Language in this digital environment can be a positive force for sustainable development for all people, but to do so must ensure a diverse range of cultural expression, reflecting the multitude of the world’s languages.

We should not forget that despite concerns about the dominance of certain companies, the digital environment is designed to be a great tool for pushing back on cultural hegemony, in that it democratises content creation and dissemination. The “means of production” on a digital platform have a much lower barrier of entry than more traditional media – you could need nothing more than a smart phone and an internet connection.

The question, then, is how can we help ensure that creators have space to make content in many different languages, and how can this content be accessible and discoverable by fellow members of their common “digital territory”?

What about Libraries?

This is where libraries come into the equation.

Making digital materials available to wider audiences through online portals or cooperative systems is a good start, creating a pool of source materials, and a critical mass of relevant content. Putting a special emphasis on minority, endangered and indigenous languages in the materials that are digitized and shared is essential.

What more are libraries doing to act as incubators of diverse cultural expressions: art-making, theatre, music, design, video games and coding?

In some cases, libraries are acting as spaces which provides local creators with the room, equipment, and training to create and share their own cultural expressions.

In others, libraries take on the role of a cultural centre, a space which celebrates and shares cultural expressions made in your local languages.

Perhaps most centrally, libraries can exist as places where the community can access content from their language group. This could be through exhibitions, collections, inter-library lending or the possibility to get online and exist in their language group’s “digital territory”.

Defining the place libraries exist in this digital environment is also important, and then designing programmes around creating, encouraging, celebrating and sharing cultural expression – that represent your communities’ languages – is a way to help link communities to their culture and to one another.

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