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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Languages and Dialects: A matter of recognition

Being a controversial subject as it is, the distinction between language and dialect often sparks heated debates not only among linguistics experts but also throughout the entire society. What makes a language to be considered a language instead of a dialect? When and under what circumstances can a dialect thrive and become a national language?

In linguistics, a dialect can be defined as a variant of a given language which is spoken by a specific group or in a particular location, but whose distinctive features – e.g. vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation – are “not distinctive enough” to be recognized as a separate language. Experts analyze mutual intelligibility among speakers in order to distinguish languages from dialects. In other words, if two speakers can understand each other although they don´t recognize the use of some words or their pronunciation is different, they must be speaking two different dialects of the same language.

Apart from using the above criterion, the existence of a common cultural history and literary tradition is also analyzed by experts as a exclusive feature of languages. A language is much more than a mere instrument of communication used by a single community of speakers - it is rather a true reflection of their cultural identity and collective values.

It is undeniable that languages have been traditionally used for political reasons over the years as a symbol of national identity as well as a way to unify a community. During the Roman Empire, Latin became the lingua franca which preserved the social and political cohesion across the territories. However, Latin developed different dialects that eventually evolved into separate languages, such as Italian, Spanish or French. For language unification purposes, a prestige dialect is often selected to become the standard/national language, such as the Beijing dialect of Mandarin Chinese, which was chosen by the government of the early Republic of China as the official language of the country.

While the official national languages are always endorsed by governments and institutions, minority languages and dialects often have to face social prejudice and they must constantly struggle to survive. In multilingual societies such as China - home to numerous oral languages with no literary tradition, and where Mandarin is the official language of the administration, media and education system - minority languages and dialects are seriously endangered without the implementation of affirmative policies.

Even though political endorsement is a key factor in order to preserve language diversity, individual speakers can also take initiative by fighting language prejudice and making sure that their mother tongue is passed on to future generations. All languages and dialects deserve the same recognition and respect.

Interpreting Crisis in Spain

A fierce controversy arose this week in Spain about the introduction of interpreting services at the Senate plenary sessions. From now on, senators are allowed to speak in the other officially recognized languages in Spain apart from Castilian Spanish – that is, Catalan, Galician and Basque – and thus translation services are provided. In a national scenario of severe economy recession where public spending has been reduced, many argue that this measure is unnecessary due to the fact that all the senators can speak and understand Spanish.

The government states that the overall budget for the Senate has been reduced since last year and the total cost of the interpreting services does not even reach one percent of the yearly budget assigned to the upper chamber. However, if Spanish is widely spoken and understood by all the senators, is it still a waste of money as the opposition claims?

Catalan, Galician and Basque are recognized as co-official languages together with Castilian Spanish in those communities where they are spoken. Although language plurality in Spain is protected and promoted by the constitution, Castilian Spanish is still the only language at the country level administration and public institutions outside those communities.

Therefore, the use of the co-official languages at the Senate should be considered as a progressive step towards language normalization in Spain. Unfortunately, public spending cuts during a period of economic crisis always tend to affect culture and language promotion since other priorities guide the allocation of funds.

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