Mind your language

Born in Lithuania in 1858 Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, (originally Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman) moved to Jerusalem, married and tried to raise his son (born 1882) to speak only Hebrew. At this time there was only a limited vocabulary in the language but Ben Yehuda campaigned and from 1882 the language was taught in some schools. In 1884 a Hebrew newspaper was started. In 1918 a stone was laid to ceremonially show that there was to be a university in British Mandate Palestine and in 1925 the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was opened. The name reflects how language is often defended through universities. Its constitution of 1925 makes it clear that ‘WHEREAS in pursuance of the Zionist aspiration of the Jewish people, the Hebrew University was established in Jerusalem in 1925 for the encouragement and promotion of learning and research … Hebrew shall be the language of instruction’.

There are other examples of the role of universities in the promotion of languages and culture. Until 1809 the location now known as Finland was ruled by people based in what is now Sweden. It then became part of the Russian empire before it declared independence in 1917. A year later Finland’s second university Åbo Akademi was opened. Based in the largely Finnish town of Turku (or Abo in Swedish) and with approximately 1,000 of its 5,500 students having attended school in Finland it is the only unilingually Swedish multi-faculty university in the world outside Sweden. Three of its staff Anders Ahlbäck, Laura Hollsten (pictured) and Henry Nygård are writing its history to mark its centenary in 2018. They gave a joint paper in Oslo about the impact of a minority university whose founding principles were marked by a strong nationalist agenda.

How does this relate to The Open University? Although the English language dominates the OU the universty has had to adapt to the rise of Welsh and it some of its materials are taught in other languages across Europe. The Welsh Language Act 1993 places a duty on public bodies in Wales to treat Welsh and English on an equal basis. Subsequently othger legislation, for example the Government of Wales Act 1998 have entrenched the status of Welsh. The Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 was intended to modernise the existing legal framework regarding the use of the Welsh language in the delivery of public services. It was approved by the Queen in February 2011. The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 was passed by the Scottish Parliament with a view to securing the status of the Gaelic language as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language. Public bodies are required to prepare Gaelic Language Plans and there is state funding to support a language which UNESCO has defined as ‘definitely endangered’.

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