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The Critical Link Between Language Access and Successful Climate Plans

"It was a smooth and pleasant night,

with the winter nearly gone

and the moon smiling in the blue sky

and lovely fragrant flowers blossoming on the roadside,

and all of a sudden rose a storm,

fierce like a wild horde of savage beasts."

So begins Bangladeshi-British poet Abdul Gaffar Choudhury’s story of the February night in 1952 when East Pakistani police opened fire on a group of students demonstrating at the University of Dhaka and in other locations across Dhaka City, Bangladesh. The students’ demand - to roll back the Pakistani state's Urdu-only policy in government and other public institutions and to give an equal status to all languages spoken across the country, including the students’ native Bengali. Many were killed in the days that followed. Finally, the Pakistani government gave in to some of the demands. As Bangladesh became independent of Pakistan's rule, the new republic established protections for the Bengali language and the right to speak one's own language. In 1999, Bangladeshis persuaded UNESCO to recognize February 21, the day that the students lost their lives fighting for their right to their native languages, as International Mother Language Day - or in Bengali, Ekushe.

The right to information in one’s own language has large scale implications for equity and a just world, especially for climate justice and gender equity advocates. The urgency of the message and the data of the climate crisis can often fail to be communicated to some native communities across the world as messaging isn’t constructed in their own language. Language plays an important in painting a full picture. Take for instance Choudhury’s imagery of political oppression closing in like a menacing weather event. In Bengali, as in English, these literary devices have developed in a context devoid of many contemporary intricacies. Natural events are only regarded as menacing when they are sudden and unexpected. The status quo of human to nature relations are otherwise tranquil and mutually enriching. Such linguistic motif make it difficult for climate activists to communicate the reality of slow, yet steady and detrimental developments in our environment like rising sea levels and global warming.

In an exercise, my fellow Future Rising Fellows and I tried to understand how climate change and the climate crisis is conceived in different languages across the world. We found out that in most cases, different neologisms are trying to grapple with both urgency as well as ubiquity. Since the majority of scientific research on climate change and sustainable energy alternatives, as well as global activist literature are produced in European languages, the issue of communicating findings and ideas based on these concepts requires extra effort from individuals and organizations whose first languages are not European-based. Gender representation has also been an Achilles' heel for several language-based progressive movements across the world, namely the quest for Gender-Fair Languages besides promoting the gender-neutral ones. Research indicates a positive impact of such initiatives.

Hence, to create more organic and inclusive grassroots movements, it is imperative to address linguistic barriers and fault lines. This Ekushe, let's start a conversation, tell us about how your mother languages address the issues of climate change and gender inequality!

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