The Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages at the University of Iceland organised a conference on cultural and linguistic diversity on 2nd and 3rd November. The conference was associated with a proposal to set up a World Language Centre in Reykjavík and two main topics were discussed:
1. future visions for the World Language Centre to be established at the University of Iceland; and
2. comparative research in linguistic, literary and cultural studies
The conference was opened by Geir H. Haarde, the Prime Minister of Iceland (John Howard please note) who stressed the importance of multilingualism in the modern world and the need for people to learn several languages, not only for their economic advantages, but also to appreciate the richness and beauty of their own native language and culture. The Prime Minister is himself a fluent speaker of Icelandic, English, Danish, Swedish, German and Italian (beat that Alexander Downer). The PM was followed by Vigdís herself, the former President of Iceland (1980-1996) and UNESCO goodwill ambassador for languages, who stressed the need for academics and the general public to appreciate cultural and linguistic diversity. We non-Icelanders in the audience were wishing that we had even a fraction of this top-level political support for linguistics and languages back in our home countries.
Under Topic 1 the Institute invited a number of keynote speakers to talk about activities going on around the world to document, catalogue and teach lesser known languages languages, including:
- Sebastian Drude, representing the Volkswagen Foundation funded DoBeS project
- Nick Thieberger, representing PARADISEC
- David Gil, representing the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
- Anthony Aristar, representing EMELD
- Chris Cieri, representing the Linguistic Data Consortium
- Elaine Tarone, representing the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition
- Delyth Prys, representing the World Language Documentation Centre
After lunch I gave a talk entitled “Current Trends in Language Documentation” and Bernard Spolsky addressed the audience on the topic of “An ecological model for language policy and management”. This was followed by presentations on the range of research currently being carried out at the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute and the Institute’s vision for an ambitious new project to establish a World Language Centre in Reykjavík that would have a range of functions, including serving as a clearing house for information on languages, outreach to the local Icelandic community and international visitors to Reykjavík, and a research role on Nordic and other languages. This was followed by a panel discussion that provoked lively audience response. The day ended with a reception hosted by the Japanese ambassador (would that all linguistics conferences should get such support!).
Dinner on the first evening was held in a theatre restaurant by the Raðhaus where we were entertained with bilingual poetry and book readings by a local author who writes in Icelandic and English.
The second day of the conference was given over to academic papers on language, culture and linguistics with a wide range of issues in language acquisition, pedagogy, and sociolinguistics covered. The final sessions focussed on computational applications in language research and included a report on current research on use of virtual reality in visualisation by Tomohiro Tanikawa of Tokyo University. The conference ended with an excursion and dinner at the Blue Lagoon spa resort.
Nick Thieberger, Sebastian Drude and I stayed on after the conference and were taken out for a drive in the countryside south of Reykjavík by conference organiser Auður Hauksdóttir who showed us bubbling thermal pools, lava flows, volcanic lakes and the Atlantic waves crashing in on the southern shore. We were impressed by the landscape, the constant wind and the lack of trees. One section of the journey reminded me a lot of my old fieldwork sites in northern South Australia near Blanchewater, and sections of the Birdsville Track through the Tirari-Sturt Stony Desert (partly named for the Thirrari people whose language I was able to study with the last speaker, Ben Murray).
The ecological and linguistic uniqueness of Iceland was truly impressive and it is to be hoped that the plans for a World Language Centre in Reykjavík are realised in the near future as an example of what a relatively small but forward-looking nation can achieve when it takes languages seriously and adopts a multilingual mindset.