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Variations on the theme of "Plurilingualism and sustainable development" - 5th Plurilingualism European Conference - 4th call for papers (deadline : March 15, 2019)

Last Updated: 5 Jan 2019

If plurilingualism were simply to defend languages (in fact its language) as a kind of sacred object, a wonder of nature to be safeguarded at all costs, we would actually not have much to say.

The reality is that languages are infinitely more than just a museum object. In Halte à la mort des langues (2,000), Claude Hagège simply points out that it is languages that make history possible. Because only language can evoke the past. Thus all human experience, past, present and even future, is found in the languages that are the manifestations of the faculty of language. Because if we are able to talk about the past, we can also imagine and conceive the future.

It is therefore not surprising that languages are present, in the background but in a decisive way, in everything we touch, in everything we see, in everything we feel, in everything we think, in everything we do, and not only in what we say.

It is also not surprising that when we talk about sustainable development, the question of languages in their plurality is raised in almost every field.

For some, sustainable development revolves around global warming and energy savings, for others, it is necessary to add food, and therefore all that is needed to feed all humanity, now and in the future, which requires space and energy and as development concerns us all, it must be equitable.
One thing leads to another, everything is in sync and if we look at the areas of our lives that are affected by the 17 objectives of sustainable development1, and in which language has no say, there are almost none.

Of course, all this is a matter of the most perfect platitude. What is the point of asserting evidence? And, of course, there are not only language issues. Certainly, but understanding the linguistic fact and going beyond the obvious is not trivial and is even quite crucial.

Let us look at some of the topics that raise questions related to language and sustainable development.

Access to education is a sustainable development issue in several ways.

From the individual's point of view, education is supposed to offer everyone the means to develop their autonomy, their power over the outside world, to flourish. This alone is not obvious and can be discussed.

From a collective point of view, education is not a factor of production, but is without a shadow of a doubt for us a factor of development for society as a whole. But that too is not self-evident.

Moreover, for economists, education is not a so-called productive investment. This is normal, since it is not a factor of production and therefore does not directly contribute to increasing a company's level of production. It is only one attribute of the factor of production labour, and a quality attribute, and therefore difficult to evaluate. But if it is not a "productive investment", does that mean that it is an unproductive investment? Many people think so, in the same way that public services are unproductive, it is well known. There is a real language problem here, which indicates a problem of thought. There is no word for such an investment not for immediate growth but for development, that is, for the long term. Because education is a deferred productive investment, not in the short term but in the long term. We will thus speak of "educational investment", unfortunately without certainty about the actual relationship between educational investment and development or rather about the meaning of the relationship. Scholarly reports show with certainty that graduation provides more income, generally better health and protection against unemployment than a person with a lower degree. Individually, the statistics are irrevocable. But collectively, what about it?
Is it economic development that allows for educational development or education that conditions economic development? The question has been asked for a long time and has been answered in a variety of ways, from the absence of a relationship to a strong relationship in which literacy and education have an autonomous and decisive role. Historians, demographers and anthropologists are perhaps better able to talk about it than economists, because they work by construction over long periods of time, which is also true of some economists but they are rarer.

Among the latter, we can mention in particular the study by Krueger and Lindhal (2001) which, after careful econometric work and using the best databases, revealed a significant role on the growth of the average number of years of study and the increase in the duration of studies in a panel of 110 countries observed between 1960 and 1990.

On the side of historians, François Furet and Wladimir Sachs (La croissance de l'alphabétisation en France du XVIIIe au XIX siècles, 1974), revealed the territorial spread of the rise in literacy and education levels under the influence of Central and Northern Europe. Hervé Le Bras and Emmanuel Todd extended the results until 1913 (L'invention de la France, 1981). In L'invention de l'Europe (1990) and L'enfance du monde - Structures familiales et développement (1984-1999), Emmanuel Todd establishes another relationship, complementary to the previous one, between family structures, the place of women in the family and society on the one hand, and literacy and raising the level of education on the other. It was the Lutheran Reformation (Todd 1990:162) that gave rise to a strong literacy movement from the 16th century onwards, with Christian literacy to enable everyone to access the scriptures being one of the essential aspects of Lutheran reform. This powerful mass literacy movement came from Scandinavian and Germanic Europe, where a certain type of family structure dominated, and by 1850 (Todd 1999:239), more than 70% of the population could read and write in Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Scotland, Iceland, Finland and Holland. Literacy will form the ground on which the 2nd Industrial Revolution can take off from the middle of the 19th century. Literacy then spread contiguously to western and southern Europe, starting with northern and eastern France. Thus, literacy and raising the level of education, i.e. cultural development, based on strong social demand, preceded economic development and then entered into a virtuous interaction with it.

But where is the language in there? It's very simple.

Access to education means first of all access to language, schooling being by its very nature a linguistic process. Because it is through language that we access knowledge, it is through language that we interact and it is the language that we learn first in school. It is learned or should be learned throughout one's life as new knowledge and skills are acquired through experience or learning.

The situation in the least developed countries is not fundamentally different. Literacy processes have preceded growth for more than half a century. Emmanuel Todd observes that around 1980, the overall literacy rate in Muslim countries seemed to be close to 40%, in India 38% and in Africa 36%.

UNESCO's Education for All 2000-2015 report (p. 160) recalls that "it was during the 1970s that the literacy rate increased most rapidly, reducing illiteracy by more than half between 1950 and approximately 2000 (Carr-Hill, 2008). Over this period, literacy increased from 28 to 60 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and from 29 to 63 per cent in the Arab States. "However, it was from the 2000s that Africa, which seemed lost to development thirty years earlier, really began to emerge.

Until now, we have been with Europe in a monolingual world, which is not at all the case in Africa, and we must ask ourselves whether African multilingualism, with some 2 000 languages, some 50 of which have more than 1 million speakers, is a huge opportunity or handicap.

First, let us note that progress has continued over the period 2000-2015. According to the UIS (UNESCO Institute for Statistics), literacy in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated at 75% of the population, an average that covers large disparities. With over 80% of countries such as Kenya, Chad, Gabon, Gabon, South Africa, Togo, Rwanda, Uganda, 50 to 80%, Malawi, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and below 50%, Niger, Chad, Mali, Guinea, Uganda, this list is not exhaustive.

As for enrolment, it has progressed considerably, even if the objectives of the Education for All plan have not been achieved. Thus, the primary school enrolment rate increased from 59% in 1999 to 79% in 2012. In comparison, rates in South and West Asia have risen from 78% to 94%. (ibid. p. 6)

But these rates must be balanced by the weaknesses of education systems, which are particularly emphasized in the most recent EFA reports. The question that holds us back, however, and to which the Della (Didactics of Languages and Literature) research laboratory of the Department of French at the University of Ghana devoted three major symposia in 2016, 2017 and 2018, which gave rise to three books published by the OEP2, is the coexistence of national or local languages with three major international languages inherited from colonial times, namely French, English and Portuguese. Africa is the only continent where the majority of children start school in a foreign language (French, English or Portuguese). Nevertheless, the problem is not new. At the end of the 12th century, for example, one of the great Latin teaching manuals, Alexandre de Villedieu's Doctrinale, written around 1199, made this recommendation: "If children have difficulty understanding well at first,... let their attention be supported by avoiding doctoral lectures and by teaching children in their own language" (Quoted by Jacques Chaurand in Nouvelle histoire de la langue française, 1999, p. 125). Teaching French in French, English in English or Portuguese in Portuguese to young Africans, whose families do not always speak these three languages, is like teaching Latin in Latin in Europe in the Middle Ages.

There is therefore a triple challenge, and that we forgive the speed of the shortcut.

First of all, there is a challenge of access for all to education: going to school is good, but learning really and sustainably in school is better. Also, the Education for All 2000-2015 plan and now the 2015-2030 Sustainable Development Goals for Quality Education, have placed and emphasize quality education, teacher training, and also the languages used in the lower grades, which are part of the problem and the solution.

Then there is the issue of learning the three national and international languages already mentioned, which are themselves part of the solution to the previous issue as soon as long studies are undertaken and for which the use in the lower classes of languages spoken in families as a teaching tool is another part of the solution.

Finally, there is a problem of safeguarding African languages. There is a real risk that many of them will quickly disappear as a result of both schooling and urbanization, especially if, as can be hoped, educational programmes are successful. As long as failure and exit rates from the school system remain high, local languages are relatively protected. It should be noted that while primary school enrolment continued to increase, the survival rate at the end of primary school in 2011 was identical to that in 1999, i.e. 58% in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to a world average of 75%, which was also stable over the same period. But this does not prevent real progress in school enrolment. Thus, the gross enrolment rate in the first cycle of secondary education (middle school level) rose from 29% to 50% in sub-Saharan Africa, an increase of 21 points, while the world average rose from 71% to 85%, an increase of 14 points. For the second cycle of the secondary education, sub-Saharan Africa's growth from 20% to 32% (+12 points) is lower than the global average from 45% to 62% (+17%), which is understandable. However, alongside this eminently positive phenomenon, which is the rise in the general level of education, it is reasonable to expect, according to a process well known in France in the period from 1870 to 1950 for regional languages, that the least widely spoken and least robust languages will be virtually eliminated within three generations by non-transmission of the language by families. This requires, in addition to the use of the languages actually spoken in the families for educational purposes, that national language and culture courses be set up in the second level. However, although the theoretical reasons and modalities have been developed for more than twenty years (see in particular the ELAN-Africa programme3 for the first level), this type of policy, which is still experimental, faces immense difficulties in being generalised. We do not know whether Africa will make this assumed multilingualism an authentic asset. In any case, it is useful to ask the question in these terms.

We had started this too fast panorama with Europe. It is perfectly legitimate to come back to this. Because, thanks to the PISA studies, the last available in 2012 for this subject, we know that illiteracy, i.e. the lack of the basic skills necessary to play a full part in society, affects 19.8% of 15-year-olds, which is an improvement on 2006 (23.4%), but almost brings it back to the situation of 1999 (19.6%). As for the adult population, the Agence nationale de lutte contre l'illlettrisme (ANLCI) estimates that 7% of the population aged 18 to 65 years old have been educated in France in a situation of illiteracy, i.e. 2,500,000 people in metropolitan France. However, "literacy is essential in modern life. In societies dominated by the written word, it is a fundamental requirement for citizens of all ages. Literacy empowers: it is crucial for educating children, finding and keeping a job, being an active consumer, managing one's health and enjoying the digital world, in the social and professional sphere. "(Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education from 10 February 2010 to 1 November 2014, L'Obs-Le plus on 07-09-2012).

These facts are now well known. It is quite clear that this should be a major national and European cause at the same level as the African language issue.

1 https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectifs_de_d%C3%A9veloppement_durable

- Objective 1: Poverty eradication
- Objective 2. Fight against hunger
- Objective 3. Access to health care
- Goal 4: Access to quality education
- Goal 5: Gender equality
- Objective 6. Access to safe water and sanitation
- Objective 7. Use of renewable energies
- Objective 8. Access to decent jobs
- Objective 9: Build a resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization that benefits all and encourage innovation
- Objective 10. Reducing inequalities
- Objective 11. Sustainable cities and communities
- Objective 12. Responsible consumption and production
- Objective 13. Fight against climate change
- Objective 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans and seas for sustainable development
- Objective 15. Terrestrial life
- Objective 16. Justice and peace
- Objective 17. Partnerships for the achievement of objectives

2Plurilinguisme et enseignement du français en Afrique subsaharienne, Collection Plurilinguisme, N° 2017/1, Écoles, langues et cultures d’enseignement en Afrique, Collection Plurilinguisme, N° 2018/2, Langues, formations et pédagogies : le miroir africain, Collection Plurilinguisme, N° 2018/3.

3Initiative launched in 2001 by eight (8) French-speaking sub-Saharan African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Mali, Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal) and 4 institutions (AFD, AUF, MAEE, OIF). It aims to promote and gradually introduce bilingual education at primary level, combining an African language and the French language. As each country has a different linguistic situation, the objective pursued in ELAN is to support countries' national action plans in a differentiated way, in accordance with their education policies.

 

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