The UN, SDGs, and Language

Author: Shannon T Bischoff
 Associate Professor
 Department of English & Linguistics
 Indiana University - Purdue 
University Fort Wayne

The global linguistics situation is complex and complicated: A fact easily overlooked by monolingual English speakers living in the USA (the second largest Spanish speaking country in the world) and easily forgotten by multilingual English speaking elites making policy decisions. Linguists estimate that there are between 6,000 and 7,000 languages in the world with about 500 languages having fewer than 100 speakers, around 1,500 with fewer than 1,000 speakers, and 3,340 with fewer than 10,000 speakers. Of the 6,000-7,000 languages, most are not part of a culture of literacy and only about 1/3 have been written; are not recognized as official by local, regional, and national governments; and lack the prestige of so called global languages such as Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, English, Bengali, Russian, and French. Further, many of the speakers of these languages do not have access to global languages. Global languages that are often used to determine the future and living conditions of the speakers of these languages, and that provide access to material wealth and education. Fewer than 10% of the world’s languages are used in education despite research demonstrating that mother tongue education provides greater outcomes in terms of literacy; acquisition of global languages as a second, third or fourth language; acquisition of content knowledge (e.g. STEM); and significantly higher completion rates.

Such facts were not lost on the attendees at the symposium. During the symposium a number of speakers addressed the individual Goals outlined in the SDGs and the 169 Targets associated with the Goals. A consensus among the participants, captured in the final report, was that there was a failure to include concern for language regarding the means of communication, dialogue, response, and implementation of the SDGs. In addition, participants further agreed that there was a lack of concern for language as a substantive element of any goal itself. Participants identified the primary cause of this clear lack of concern for language in the SDGs as the result of “[t]he dominance of certain languages, particularly English, in international development discourse creat[ing] the illusion of a unified global effort. In fact, this dominance has widened the gulf between the Anglophone elites who research, discuss, and write policies, and the billions called on to implement these policies at the individual level, creating levels of frustration that may remain unnoticed by the elites themselves, precisely because of the monolingual environment in which their deliberations take place.[3]

That is, the SDGs demonstrate a clear disconnect from policy makers (working primarily in English but also perhaps one of the other five official UN languages which are also major global languages), developing, and presumably implementing, the SDGs and the billions of speakers on the planet of languages other than those global languages. The consequences of this were outlined in the numerous presentations and discussions held during the symposium, but the symposium report focused primarily on this disconnect as it related to language, education, and the law. The reader can imagine the challenges of reaching Goal 6, regarding access to clean water and sanitation, if no policy maker has taken the time to consider how communication with populations that don’t speak one of the official UN languages will engage in the process if there has been no planning and budgeting for translators and interpreters or determination if translators and interpreters are even available since many communities lacking access to clean water and sanitation are comprised of speakers of non-global languages. The point being, the UN SDGs strongly suggest that UN officials took for granted that communication could be conducted in one of a handful of languages when it comes to negotiating and implementing the Goals. An assumption that, if not corrected will ensure the failure of the Goals. Specifically the final report of the symposium notes the following regarding language and various Goals:

Many of the goals include, or should include, attention to language. This is most obvious with Goal 4 (quality education), where language of instruction is crucially important, along with other linguistic concerns. Goal 5 (gender equality) implies opportunities for women and girls to have the same access to linguistic resources as their male counterparts. Goal 8 (productive employment and decent work) is dependent on the ability of all to communicate linguistically in the workplace. Goal 10 (inequality within and among countries) implies maximizing linguistic equality and removing barriers to the use of minority languages. Goal 11 (safe and sustainable cities) requires addressing the extreme linguistic diversity of many modern cities – a resource for positive change or, if it is not well-managed, a divisive element. Goal 16 (promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies) necessitates addressing linguistic justice in the context of social justice; indeed, the latter is not possible without adequate attention to the former. The symposium addressed Goal 4 particularly, but the linguistic dimension of other goals should not be ignored.

One area that participants focused on regarding education was mother tongue literacy. Along with others, speakers from Save the Children US and RTI International, two global NGOs, discussed the importance and value of mother tongue education and literacy and what their organizations have been doing to increase mother tongue literacy in order to reap the long term educational, well-being, and economic benefits of such educational practices. The speakers noted how Save the Children’s Literacy Boost toolkit encourages mother tongue literacy and how RTI International’s mother tongue educational training and resources not only increase literacy and lower dropout rates, but could serve as models for attaining many of the SDGs directly and indirectly. What the work of Save the Children, RTI International, other NGOs, and a growing body of research has demonstrated is that mother tongue literacy and education lead to higher educational attainment, greater well-being, and thus productive members of society that have the skills, knowledge, and self-worth to participate and contribute equally in their communities. Further, economic linguists (those that study the economics associated with language policy) have noted that the immediate and long term economic benefits of mother tongue education out-weigh the cost when compared to not implementing mother tongue education policy. The Symposium Final Report to the UN identifies the SDGs creator’s lack of consideration of language in general as only exacerbating the challenges of reaching Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable education and promote lifelong opportunities for all. The Report notes that unless language policy issues are engaged by the UN with regards to education and take into account language rights and language pluralism Goal 4 is too abstract to be reached. Further, without access to equitable education there can be no gender equality; no access to productive employment and decent work; no equality between countries; no safer and sustainable cities; and no sustainable promotion of just, peaceful and inclusive societies: No other Goals.

When it comes to the SDGs and the law, language considerations are paramount. As the Final Symposium Report notes, SDG 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institution at all levels implies that an individual’s rights guaranteed under Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must be incorporated into the SDGs regardless of the language spoken by an individual. Yet the SDGs do not address language services (e.g. translators and interpreters) necessary to ensure that already disenfranchised speakers of minority or foreign languages are not burdened with ensuring adequate and fair representation under the law. Speakers like Dr. Dragana Radosavljevi and Dr. Aneta Pavlenko highlighted how linguistic issues are only exacerbated in the court systems whether the courts be international or national. Radosavljevi demonstrated how in the International Criminal Court the onus of proving bias or inaccuracy in translation or interpretation falls on the accused in a system that lacks strict requirements of translators and interpreters. Pavlenko pointed out how even in the United States many native speakers of English struggle with the legal jargon, which they often do not understand, used by police to their own detriment. This even includes the reading of the Miranda Rights and the Miranda Waiver. In short, if Goal 16 is to be attained a better understanding of the linguistic issues involving the various legal systems must not only be considered, but also addressed: Something seemingly not even broached by the SDGs developers.

It is easy to forget that common sense is only shared by those with common experiences. What the Language and the Sustainable Development Goals symposium and the resulting Final Report submitted to the UN tell us, like the ICS report before them, is that well intentioned elites do not share the common experiences of those they wish to help, and thus lack the common sense necessary to develop and implement their grand designs. Among the experiences they lack, that many researchers and NGO staff have, is experiences with non-global languages that make day-to-day encounters and experiences possible in communities. Let’s hope officials at the UN have the common sense to listen to expert opinion.

[1] The UN SDGs homepage is 

[2] The ICS report on the SDGs can be found at the following link:

[3] Symposium Final Report pg. 2 link:

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