by Steven Greenleaf          28 Sept. 2015

More than 400 million people speak Spanish as their native language, making Spanish the second most commonly spoken language on Earth, second only to Mandarin Chinese and ahead of English. Greenleaf Education Costa Rica is committed to bi-lingual, Spanish/English operations and courses. This commitment is not without challenges but also contributes to growth and adventure for those of us working toward fluency in a second language.

A major challenge for us in developing courses, sharing information, and making the best possible use of our extensive library on environmental and sustainable development topics is the fact that only a tiny fraction is available in anything other than English – an inconvenient hurdle for us, our collaborators, and our students. This is a major problem for all our futures in a very real way. The near total dominance of English as the de facto language of sustainability puts us all at risk.

Our biosphere and the issues affecting it do not respect national boundaries. They do not respect cultural or economic boundaries. They do not respect language boundaries. The developing nations of the world are to some extent being excluded from the current conversations on sustainable development, particularly when reaching beyond the worlds of academia, economic power, and policy setting. This is an engine for injustice and inequality and it smacks of elitism, a problem the environmental movement has often suffered from.

Part of sustainable development is cultural respect. Another part is transparency. How can these core necessities of truly fair and wide ranging development be realized with a language barrier in their way? Of the materials we have in our library, and the links and pages we visit, less than one percent even offers information in anything other than English.

Having lived and worked in developing nations, there are enough hindrances to promoting sustainability without adding another. Lack of institutional capacity, expertise, and technology; weak transparency and accountability in governance, corruption and nepotism, are commonly encountered obstacles to sustainable development in the developing world. These nations need to be able to import success where applicable in order to catch up in development without making the same errors the developed nations of the world went through, errors we do not have time or resources for. How do they learn and assimilate new information and systems if they cannot even speak the language?

The lack of multi-lingual information and more importantly multi-lingual thinking is a counter productive and exclusionary force. Greenleaf Education Costa Rica is committed to breaking down this language barrier by striving to be truly multi-lingual to the best of our ability, translating materials ourselves, and trying to generate change by encouraging other organizations to offer translations.