Dictionaries are the answer!*

John Rennison


Dept. of Linguistics, University of Vienna, Austria

1          The question

The question was: How do we achieve justice? or How can poverty be beaten? The answers to these questions are, of course, very many on a superficial level. The North can send aid in various forms. It can delete the debts of developing countries.[1] But what we need is a long-term, if possible permanent solution, and aid in the form of goods or money will never achieve this – though they will hopefully provide some breathing space.

2          Who are “the poor”?

Have you ever noticed that the really poor people in the world don’t speak your language (or at least, not as their mother tongue). Typically, the poor speak a language that is not even recognised as an official language[2] of their country – often, it is not even considered to be a proper language at all. This is not accidental, but lies at the root of their poverty. People at the bottom of the globalisation hierarchy usually have no access to even the most basic human rights because they have never heard them (let alone read them).

3          Infrastructure

Humans are the same everywhere. If we believe in this, then we have a problem to explain why some areas of the world are full of people whose main occupation is to avoid starvation. Obviously, if these people had been born with the same social and material infrastructure in place as, say, in London,[3] then they would have been just as few worries about their material existence and political freedom as the present inhabitants of London.

If we want to see justice in the whole world, then all we need to do is to provide the necessary social and material infrastructure.[4] And the job ought to be easy, because there are plenty of people who are more than ready to help on a local level. The only problem is: how can such an infrastructure be installed? Obviously, “aid” of the conventional kind has failed miserably. Most often, the aid never reaches the people it was intended for, but vanishes into the pockets of the long line of politicians and officials between the donor and the recipient. So in fact, conventional aid mainly empowers the few who weren’t poor in the first place, and never reaches the grass roots.

4          Education is a solution, but...

Several organisations have realised where the best hope for the future lies: in the education of the poor. Unfortunately, their efforts have only met with success in cases where a) the language problem has been mastered and b) the education is carried out by local authorities.

For full access to education, the use of English is eventually inevitable.[5] Since English is already so widely used, it would be ridiculously wasteful to install a new “world language” like Esperanto. Sufficient access to primary and secondary education can also be gained via other languages – usually the former colonial language and official language[6] of the country concerned (e.g. French, Spanish, Portuguese). (From here on, I will refer to such languages as “English etc.”). The problem is to offer access to English etc.

In most developing countries, children are faced with English etc. for the first time at age 5 or 6 when they start school. They are also immediately faced with the task of learning how to read and write this language – a task that is hard enough for mother-tongue speakers. This task is made more difficult, if not impossible, by the poor competence of most teachers in English etc. – and the teachers in turn can’t be blamed because their own teachers lacked the necessary competence.

It is generally agreed that children would have an easier time if they first learned how to write their home language before tackling the idiosyncratic writing systems of English etc. Okay, so let them write their home language first. And now here comes the crux: How can anyone learn how to write a language without a dictionary to refer to?

5          ...there are no dictionaries

Even the smallest minority languages in Europe have a variety of dictionaries available. For most languages, there are even specially prepared learners’ dictionaries for schools. Now contrast this with developing countries, where the vast majority of languages have no dictionary at all. And if there is a dictionary, it is often old and outdated, incomplete or otherwise inappropriate for learners.

This lack of dictionaries is equally a hurdle for adults (from age 15 upwards) who would like to learn how to write their own language. For them, an outline of the grammar of their language would also be a useful tool; but usable grammars are even rarer than dictionaries.

6          Dictionaries and grammars are the only long-term solution

Aid is necessary in the short and medium term, but the only long-term solution is co-operation between rich and poor. But how can we co-operate when we can only communicate with the few privileged people in poor countries who speak English etc.? In Pobé-Mengao or Sabon Gida Yukuben[7] no-one has seen “live 8”. They have no electricity, let alone TV.

The only thing that the North can give to the South for this long-term solution is dictionaries and grammars. The local people are perfectly well able to organise their own literacy courses and their education in general. In fact, organising their education for them would constitute undue interference. The only expertise that is completely unavailable at a local level is the linguistic expertise needed to analyse a language.[8] Of course, such analysis and preparation of dictionaries must, by its very nature, be carried out in close co-operation with local people.

7          Language rights: the most basic human rights

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights actually omits the most basic of human rights: every human being should have the right to read (or at least hear) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in his/her own language. Language diversity, especially in the developing countries, is a fact that can’t be denied and won’t go away if we ignore it. The only solution is to analyse the languages and produce affordable dictionaries. Are you with me?

*         This text is dedicated to Bob Geldoff, whose warm-up at the “8 live” concert is being broadcast live as I write. It specifically does not address the (probably even more pressing, but far more complex) needs of the few remaining indigenous peoples who have managed to resist (or be ignored by) globalisation.

[1]         It is not certain that deleting the debt of developing countries will have any significance whatsoever, unless there is some way to ensure that the money that would have been used for repayments (which is not very much anyway) is actually used for infrastructure measures. Even so, I fully support this step.

[2]         The recognition of a language has various stages. Here, I mean that speakers are unable to use their home language at court or other official institutions of their home country.

[3]         I choose London only because the main “8 live” concert is being held there. You could replace it with any town in the “western” world (Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and other areas). Also, I do not include in this comparison fairly recent immigrants from developing countries who have not yet found their feet.

[4]         Of course, I do not mean “our” infrastructure, but an infrastructure of equivalent quality which respects the local cultures and is accessible via the local languages.

[5]         Of course, there still remain other widely-used languages such as Chinese, French or Spanish, which can be used up to high levels of education. Nevertheless, English is the language of computers and of academic communication at the highest levels.

[6]         It is paradoxical that precisely these former colonial languages have become national languages in the poorer countries of the world, even though with few exceptions they are never the home language of anyone in those countries.

[7]         These are two villages in West Africa (Burkina Faso and Nigeria) of which I have long-term first-hand experience.

[8]         This should not be taken as belittling the efforts of linguists in many developing countries who are bravely tackling the huge task at hand with ridiculously low resources. But it is precisely these linguists who have appealed to their colleagues in the North to document the languages as soon as possible. Fortunately, north-south co-operation in this area works very well – perhaps because there is no financial profit to be made from writing a dictionary.