From Yakut to Sarkese: Prague event highlights language diversity

Jan Bičovský, photo: Kateřina Havránková / Czech Radio

Thursday marks the European Day of Languages, which is celebrated annually across the continent. It aims to promote the rich linguistic diversity of Europe and raise awareness of the importance of lifelong language learning. Here in the Czech Republic, the European Day of Languages is marked at Prague’s Campus Hybernská. Visitors can attend exhibitions and lectures as well as special language courses, from Yakut and Yiddish to Faroese and Sarkese.

Jan Bičovský,  photo: Kateřina Havránková / Czech Radio
Ahead of the event I met with linguist Jan Bičovský from the platform Library of Languages, which organizes the event, and I first asked him about the importance of preserving language diversity:

“As part of the European history, Czechs were one of those nations that actually were almost turned into a German-speaking nation. So it’s a success story, in a way, that the Czech language was revived.

“There are numerous other languages around Europe and around the world that are connected closely, of course, to the culture of the nation or to the population.

“For this fact, they are worth surviving and they are worth promoting, studying, as much as the cultures of those people that speak the languages.

“Of course with the mass media, with the advent of English as the sort of lingua franca around the world, and national states with their national languages, the linguistic diversity in Europe is dying.

“The Faculty of Arts is trying to study and keep alive these languages. Each language is interesting in itself, not only linguistically, but as a mirror of the culture and of the history of the people.”

So when you say that the linguistic diversity in Europe is dying, does it mean that some of the European languages are really threatened with extinction?

“Yes, there are numerous languages around Europe that struggle to survive. You can think of those minority languages like, for example, Scottish Gaelic, the Celtic language of Scotland, which is not technically dead, but has a very low number of speakers, especially young speakers. The same problem is with Irish, Basque in Spain or Low Sorbian in Germany.

“Also what is threatened is the dialectal diversity. For example Czech is a very good example of a language that used to have numerous dialects. Those are almost levelled out. It’s not the same situation as you would have a hundred or two hundred years ago. So we are losing that.

“Each language is interesting in itself, not only linguistically, but as a mirror of the culture and of the history of the people.”

“And of course if we are speaking about Scotland or Ireland, those are rather rich countries that are very much aware of their history and of their heritage. So they are trying whatever they can to support their languages.

“But there are of course other places around the world where the cultures and the speakers of those languages cannot support their language this way. So we are trying to help them as much as we can as well.”

So, how exactly will you be marking the European Day of Languages?

“We’ll have a whole-day programme for the general public. Part of it is focused at high schools and basic schools and their students to show them that there is not just English and Spanish and German and French, but there are numerous other languages around Europe and around the world that they can study that are interesting and that can be studied of course at the Faculty of Arts.

“So we are trying to promote what we do and what we were able to conserve and preserve at the faculty. So there are more than 40 different languages that you can try to learn within 45 minutes, to master at least ‘hello’ and ’how are you’.

“There are also a number of exhibitions. We’ll have calligraphy workshops and we’ll have a number of specialised lectures. One is on deciphering ancient languages and ancient scripts, from Mycenaean to Runic script. There will be a series of lectures on threatened and dying languages around the world and so on and on.

“So the whole campus will be packed with different things, different lectures, different ideas and different themes.”

This is the second time you are marking the European Day of Languages. What was the attendance last year?

“Fantastic. We did not expect to have such large audience. The campus was packed with people and I think they loved it. So this year we really had to work out a schedule and reservations for the students of high schools and basic schools and it’s already booked out, even though we have more programme than last year.”

How would you motivate students to study a minority language? Why is it good to know these languages?

“Well, I am a linguist. I would say all languages are interesting. Smaller languages have smaller number of specialists working on them.

“But if you are not into linguistics as such, through that language you might learn something about the country and you might actually become one of them, in some way, if you travel there.

“You might make yourself familiar with a literature and tradition that no one around you really knowns, which will enrich your life.

“You never know when there is an opportunity to get a nice job doing Finnish or Basque translations or whatever other language around the world you find.

“And languages are beautiful. They are part of our culture. So we are able to see the beauty in languages if we really want to.

Is there a wide array of languages to choose from at Charles University?

“Oh, yes. I would say that we are the best supplied university in the world and I am not exaggerating. We have Basque, we have Irish and we have Welsh. We did have Scottish Gaelic.

“We offer something like 30 different dead languages. We also have Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian. You name it. All around Europe and beyond.”

How come? Do you think it is because we are members of one of the smaller language groups?

“I don’t know, really. The Faculty of Arts was the centre of linguistic life for a long time. It attracted different kinds of people and specialists in, say, the more exotic areas, like oriental studies and so on.

“Unlike other universities, Charles University struggled hard to keep that alive so were not getting rid of subjects like Vietnamese, Indonesian or ancient Greek.

It might not make much sense economically, but we are trying to preserve some sort of a tradition here. The school of teaching and learning and working with those languages is special. It’s part of our cultural heritage as well.”

The events marking the European Day of Languages are organised by the platform Library of Languages, which you helped to establish.

"There are more than 40 different languages that you can try to learn within 45 minutes, to master at least ‘hello’ and ’how are you’.”

“As you can imagine the faculty is very diverse and people doing Finnish may not know people doing Chinese and vice versa. Doing those minor or exotic languages has some limits, some problems and some things that can best be developed together.

“So we basically started this to help people who teach those languages to cooperate with each other, to talk to each other and to exchange methods and ideas and of course to promote the Faculty of Arts as a place to learn different languages as a whole.

So what are kind of activities do you carry out apart from organizing the European Day of Languages here in Prague?

“Well, we are already organizing open courses of different languages as much as we manage to get people and place for that.

“During the year we co-organize events that are somehow connected to different languages, be it Armenian Day, or Greek Day or Thai Day or Tibetan Day. And we are trying to get more information about that into the highs schools and into the general public.

“We are trying to also figure out which institutions might be interested in sharing some of that, such as museums, galleries and embassies. We are also trying as much as we can to attract people to learn those languages and to apply for studying at the faculty.

“Often, when there is a programme, say, on literature, we are trying to incorporate something on some exotic literature that people wouldn’t normally come across. It seems to work. People actually get the idea, at the university and elsewhere. So we hope to have this something like a popularisation platform in the future.”

How do we stand in comparison with other Europeans when it comes to speaking foreign languages?

“I would say it’s not that bad. It’s not ideal and it’s of course difficult to judge. I would say younger people are usually OK with English and at least one language, which is not that bad.

“It is not on the level of, I would say, the Dutch and Danish speakers, because they would usually have English on a very good level and some other language.

“But it’s not that bad. I know from a personal experience with students coming from other countries that there are parts of Europe where the language education is on a worse level.”

Coming back to the European Day of Languages, when and where does the event take place in Prague?

“It starts at nine o’clock in what we call Campus Hybernská, on Hybernská Street, near the Náměstí Republiky metro station. It’s a joint project between the Faculty of Arts and the City of Prague. So actually the building belongs to the city but we produce the programme there. And it will finish late in the afternoon or evening.

“We cooperate with the European Union representation and the EUNIC, which organizes a speak-dating event in Lucerna on Wenceslas Square, so we are trying to bring people to both things.

“There will also be ice cream, refreshments and of course, the languages!”