Each year the United Nations declares that the next year will be an International Year of X, for several Xs; 2008 is the UN Year of Sanitation, the Reef, Planet Earth, the Potato, and… Languages. Heidi Harley reported on Language Log, in May 2007, on the UN declaration of IYL, but we haven't taken up the question of what you might DO for the occasion. (Heidi's posting was mainly taken up with the split focus of the official statements about the occasion — lauding multilingualism and linguistic diversity; and also urging that endangered and minority languages be protected and preserved.*)
Now, in a letter in the most recent issue (June 2008) of Language, David Crystal exhorts members of the Linguistic Society of America to find ways to promote IYL (even though it's more than half over). (Crystal's letter is an abridged version of a paper available here.)
*[Digression: Heidi didn't take up the status of non-standard varieties — because, of course, there is scant international pressure to protect and preserve them. Until such varieties are judged to be minority languages, they are beneath the bureaucrats' contempt. No legislator or administrator is going to argue for the protection or preservation of African American Vernacular English, or Cockney, or Singlish, or… (supply hundreds or thousands of varieties here, even just sticking to varieties of English). A topic, perhaps, for some future posting. But not for this one.]
Crystal's five suggestions, in brief:
Celebratory days: we already have World Languages Day (September 26) and World Mother Language Day (February 21), but what might we do to actually celebrate them? Enlist the greeting card industry?
Locations to visit: there are a few language museums around, but not many, and hardly anyone knows about them (Crystal points us to some information here). This is a tough one: how to find things about languages that you can see or grasp? The potato is a snap, and reefs too. (Goodness knows what people do with sanitation, or planet Earth.)
Awards: Crystal emphasizes that what giving awards does is provide publicity, publicity, publicity. The LSA does have awards, but they are collegial recognitions — the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award, the Linguistics, Language, and the Public Award, named chairs at Linguistic Institutes, and so on — which attract no attention outside the field. (Linguists tend to shrink back from the idea of awards like the Pulitzers, not to mention the Nobels, possibly because the whole thing seems so crass, and possibly because they believe there is not enough work of high quality to justify such awards; see Geoff Pullum's piece "No Trips to Stockholm" in his Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.) The ADS gets significant publicity each year with its Words of the Year elections, of course, but they are (intentionally) rather frivolous. Can we do better, Crystal asks.
Artworks: "literature, film, painting, music, dance, and so forth" (from Crystal) on the theme of language. Well, languages, or maybe Language. Pretty much open territory.
There is, of course, no end of fiction, poetry, film, and so on in which particular bits of individual languages and particular customs of language use play central roles. (There is at least one book of poetry in English with the one-word title Language — by Jack Spicer, and it's wonderful. The cover art is, in fact, a reproduction of the cover page of an issue of the LSA's journal Language, an issue in which Spicer was one of the authors.)
But… artwork on languages is such an abstract idea. Even multilingualism and minority languages/varieties aren't easy to embody as Ideas — as matters of personal experience, yes, but not as abstractions.
Reliable data: documentation of languages, and updating of documentation. This strikes me as the hardest sell to the general public: who cares? If we think they should care, how to convince them?
Well, on some points lots of people care: they want to know who uses which words to mean what, for instance, so they want to hear (for American English, for example) what the linguistic atlases have to say, and what DARE has to say. If the press looks at such sources, it will report the "facts" in these sources, though some of the atlases report on the usage of people born over a hundred years ago and the DARE materials were collected around 40 years ago. I don't think we can easily fix this, and the language statistics in the Ethnologue (which Crystal specifically mentions, to point to some problems) can't easily be updated either. In any case, I'm afraid that most people won't appreciate the value of documenting minority languages or minority varieties (unless these people have some personal association with them).
Still, there are possibilities: celebratory days, maybe locations, certainly awards. But the year is more than half over: any proposals? any practicable proposals?
(Crystal's letter was followed by one from SIL linguist Wesley M. Collins, writing from Peru, where various events have been scheduled to celebrate IYL. These are modest, especially in comparison to the potato celebrations — the potato being "Peru's gift to the world" — but not insignificant.)
A final note: since I've invited people to make suggestions about how to celebrate IYL, I'm allowing comments. But if you want to talk about multilingualism, language diversity, minority languages, endangered languages, or non-standard varieties, please do that in some more appropriate place. On the other hand, if you want to talk about the usefulness of such very high-level initiatives as the IYL declaration, go for it. (I have mixed feelings. Crystal is an enthusiast, as is Language editor Brian Joseph. Others might just dismiss the idea out of hand. But maybe there's some middle ground that would be good for linguistics and also for society in general.)