Language Matters

Kathleen Stein Smith, Ph.D


New York, May 21, 2016.  The dominant use of major languages, especially English, in formulating the Sustainable Development Goals has actually widened the linguistic gap between the planners and the populations addressed, according to a recent document published by the Study Group on Language and the United Nations.  

The Study Group, an informal group of academics, researchers and practitioners, recently organized a Symposium on Language and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), held at the Church Center for the United Nations, New York, on April 21 and 22, 2016.  Over one hundred academics, diplomats, NGO representatives and UN officials attended the gathering, which examined the linguistic implications of the SDGs, set by the United Nations General Assembly as the basis for the UN’s development agenda for the period 2015-2030.  The recently published summary presents some of  the conclusions of the symposium. It emphasizes that language and language differences tend to get taken for granted by planners, who overlook their importance in determining effective outcomes. 

‘The dominance of certain languages, particularly English, in international development discourse’ creates, according to the report, ‘the illusion of a unified global effort.’  While development experts may be fluent in English, many of the people they seek to serve know none of the major world languages. Thus, ‘dialogue tends to go in one direction: from the planners to the planned,’ and ‘often language prevents dialogue in a spirit of reciprocity and equality between planners and people.’  

There is clearly ‘an urgent need to include language at the planning, implementation and assessment stages’ of the SDGs.” 

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Languages do matter!


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