Language, Gender and Sustainability

Prof. Dr. Rainer Voßen, Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Afrikanische Sprachwissenschaften
Prof. Dr. Thomas Bearth, Universität Zürich, Seminar für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft
Prof. Dr. Michael Fremerey, Universität Kassel, Institut für Soziokulturelle Studien
Prof. Dr. Bernd Nothofer, Universität Frankfurt am Main, Südostasienwissenschaften

What is the place of language in the design of development strategies satisfying global standards of sustainability as defined e.g. by the Rio conference in 1992 and maintained under the provision of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG)? An inquiry into this interdisciplinary terra incognita was carried out between 2003 and 2007 by researchers from the universities of Frankfurt, Kassel, Munster and Zurich in cooperation with scientific partners in Ivory Coast (Swiss Center of Scientific Research), Namibia (University of Namibia, Windhoek), Indonesia (Universitas Tadulako, Palu), and with various agencies engaged in local development.
Communities participating in the research were the Tura (Ivory Coast), the Herero (Namibia), and populations indigenous to the periphery of the Lore Lindu Park in Central Sulawesi - all characteristically sharing a common condition of communicative dependency (CD): unequal distribution of language competences is typically matched by asymmetries of power and influence, which in conjunction with poverty constitute a self-reproducing cycle of marginalization of those players on whose shoulders rests a good deal of globally recognized objectives for sustainable development.
Whereas CD downgrades potential actors to recipients of information, communicative sustainability (CS) enhances participation in decision-processes at all levels. Empowerment for negotiation, and inclusion for participation as prerequisites to sustainable development were shown to hinge to a much larger part than commonly assumed on linguistic factors, above all local language.
Multi-media supported field research and collaborative analysis of actor discourses provided the empirical basis for

- field-testing the core hypothesis underlying the research: communicative sustainability as a prerequisite to sustainability which in turn is a desired result of development;

- elaborating its methodological correlate: local language hermeneutics, a set of principles including primacy of local analysis, locally-mediated research, recourse to source text, audience design, bias control, co-validation with local constituencies, etc.

- exploring its sociological and interactional dimension: negotiation procedures, i.e. culturally determined sets of routines for collective deliberation and decision-making
proposing a preliminary set of communicative sustainability indicators.

In sum, local language was shown to be a resource for development and development research in the following ways: 1. as an epistemic tool for accessing and analyzing local analysis as performed by actor groups, and thus for understanding the human factor determining local action and inaction; 2. as a determinant of social cohesion, by taking into account language-governed exclusion or inclusion; 3. as the default resource for negotiating, implementing and monitoring local development; 4. as a clearing place for relating and integrating expert and local knowledge;5. as a factor of strengthening local analytical capacities and, by way of consequence, reshaping the role relationship between experts and actors. 6. as a source of strengthening a sense of ownership conducive to ecological responsibility and conservancy; 7. as an object of development in its own right, drawing on its creative potential through use in oral and written mode as well as in multimedia applications.