What language do you speak?

The Radcliffe Camera (Bodleian Libraries)

The Oxford World Book Capital committee is working hard to plan a great year of events for 2014. They’re also working to build up support for the bid and just to let people around Oxford (and the world) know it exists.

I came to study and work in Oxford because of its history, but also because it’s English… I don’t mean the rolling countryside and fluid accents. I mean the language. I’ve never been very good at picking up foreign languages (despite years of Spanish and my current small foray into German).

Incidentally, I know people from non-English speaking countries who moved to Oxford just to learn and develop their English. Oxford is a quintessential English city – but it’s also a draw for foreigners from all over the world. This multiculturalism brings up a few issues with the World Book Capital bid.

For one, the UNESCO World Book Capital nomination has never been given to an English-speaking country before.

In order to succeed, the WBC bid must cover a solid contribution to the extension, growth and dissemination of knowledge in a multilingual world, not rely on English as a world language.

We must also use Oxford’s literary heritage to our advantage in order to maintain local language publishing and think about using it to satisfy UNESCO’s commitment to the protection of multilingual global industry.

If we look at how other WBC nominees have used local heritage and identity to increase global awareness, despite language barriers, we see creative and open-minded uses of language.

For example, Amsterdam encouraged international audiences to join with Dutch publishers in adapting new channels to accommodate global diffusion of knowledge. Buenos Aires chose a theme (‘A City as a Library Open to the World’)  that allowed the city to utilise local heritage in realising a campaign that spoke to a global audience. They also opened a library called The Multilingual Public Library to promote the goal to disseminate the publications of foreign industries. It should be noted that Buenos Aires faced similar challenges as Spanish is also a world language.

So what should Oxford do to counteract these language issues?

  • Combine literary heritage and publishing and language issues to find a balance between using the advantages of English and promoting other language traditions.
  • Include a discussion on the individual merits of local language publishing in a multilingual world.
  • Find a way to distance the bid from the negative connotations associated with world languages, perhaps by focusing on the ability of the English publishing industry to disseminate translated texts.
  • Ensure that at least one or two of the books chosen for the proposed ‘Book of the Month’ are translated works of world literature.
  • Use the advantages of digital media to promote literacy globally among a new generation of readers.
So what do you think? What else could Oxford do?

Comment below or send me an email – and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like to be involved with the bid. Maybe you have a great idea for bringing people together through reading or maybe you have a reading group that wants to create an event. Whatever it is, we’d love to hear your ideas!

(Thanks to Emily Hunter, Oxford Inspires intern, for the information in this post.)

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