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The role of multilingualism in navigating hate speech and fostering peace, by Hauwa Mohammed Sani, PhD

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The role of multilingualism in navigating hate speech and fostering peace, by Hauwa Mohammed Sani, PhD

June 18, 2024 – International Day for Countering Hate Speech

The International Day for Countering Hate Speech provides a crucial opportunity to address the pervasive issue of hate speech and explore practical strategies for its elimination. The 2024 theme, “Eliminating Hate Speech and Fostering Peace,” underscores the urgency of combating divisive rhetoric and promoting harmony worldwide. One powerful yet underutilised tool in this effort is multilingualism.

Many people view multilingualism as a factor that perpetuates conflict and hate speech, but its role can indeed be reoriented towards fostering peace. This concept has been substantiated by our research team at the University of Essex London, where we are conducting a 4-year study entitled “Multilingualism, Conflict, and Conflict Resolution in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities of Practiced Linguistic Diversity,” funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Although my primary focus as a peace linguist has consistently been on promoting peace, the motivation for this article arises from the Future Africa Research Leadership Fellowship (FAR-LeaF) at the University of Pretoria, where I am doing my postdoc, which highlighted the significance of this day.

Additionally, our collaborative research efforts on the MCCRA project at the University of Essex in London provided the necessary framework for this work. One of the key objectives of this ambitious collaborative research is to present theoretically grounded arguments on how multilingual practices, language ideologies, and language policies can influence both the onset and resolution of conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa. This article considers explicitly hate speech as a significant driver of armed violence, particularly in Northern Nigeria. It explores how multilingualism can play a role in countering hate speech and mitigating conflict. By understanding the impact of language on conflict dynamics, the article aims to inform more effective strategies for conflict prevention and resolution.

Understanding Hate Speech

Hate speech refers to any communication that belittles or discriminates against individuals or groups based on attributes such as race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or nationality. It can manifest through verbal attacks, written words, symbols, or actions intended to demean or incite hostility and violence. The dangers of hate speech are profound, as it can lead to social fragmentation, violence, and long-term conflicts. In extreme cases, it has precipitated ethnic cleansing and genocide.

The Power of Multilingualism in Countering Hate Speech

Multilingualism, defined as the ability to communicate proficiently in multiple languages, alleviates the impacts of hate speech and promotes a culture of peace. This phenomenon is significant in Sub-Saharan Africa, renowned for its vast linguistic diversity. The region is home to over 2,100 Indigenous languages, accounting for over a quarter of the world’s languages. In Nigeria alone, over 500 languages constitute a significant portion of Africa’s linguistic landscape. More than 300 languages are located in Northern Nigeria. This rich tapestry of languages in Africa and Nigeria specifically underscores the potential for linguistic diversity to enhance mutual understanding, mitigate hate speech, and foster unity.

How Multilingualism Can Help Eliminate Hate Speech

  1. Promoting Understanding and Empathy:

Multilingualism allows individuals to engage with and understand different cultures and perspectives. This cultural fluency can reduce prejudices and stereotypes that fuel hate speech. When people can communicate across linguistic boundaries, they are more likely to empathise with others’ experiences and viewpoints, fostering a more inclusive and tolerant society.

  1. Bridging Communication Gaps:

Hate speech often thrives in environments with limited communication or a lack of understanding. Multilingualism can bridge these gaps by enabling direct communication between diverse groups. This reduces the potential for misunderstandings and helps to resolve conflicts before they escalate into hate speech.

  1. Creating Inclusive Dialogue Spaces:

Multilingualism can facilitate the creation of inclusive public dialogue spaces where all voices are heard and respected. By ensuring that minority languages are represented in public discourse, societies can combat the marginalisation that often leads to hate speech.

  1. Empowering Multilingual Individuals as Mediators:

Individuals who are proficient in multiple languages can act as mediators and cultural intermediaries. They can help to de-escalate situations where hate speech is present by interpreting not just the language but the cultural context and nuances of different groups, promoting mutual respect and understanding.

Practical Applications and Policy Implications

To effectively leverage multilingualism in the fight against hate speech, several practical and policy measures can be implemented:

  1. Multilingual Education Programs:

Education systems should promote multilingual education to equip students with the skills to navigate and appreciate diverse linguistic landscapes. This fosters a culture of respect and understanding from an early age, reducing the likelihood of engaging in or being influenced by hate speech.

  1. Public Awareness Campaigns:

Governments and NGOs can launch public awareness campaigns highlighting the dangers of hate speech and the benefits of multilingualism. These campaigns can showcase stories of how multilingualism has successfully bridged divides and fostered peace in various communities.

  1. Legislation and Regulation:

Enacting laws that protect linguistic diversity and promote multilingualism can help create a legal framework that supports eliminating hate speech. Policies should ensure that public services and media are accessible in multiple languages to reach and include diverse populations

  1. Community Engagement Initiatives:

Grassroots initiatives that encourage multilingual communication and cultural exchange can strengthen community bonds. These initiatives can include multilingual dialogue forums, cultural festivals, and language exchange programs.

Conclusion

On this International Day for Countering Hate Speech, it is essential to recognise the vital role that multilingualism can play in eliminating hate speech and fostering peace. Promoting and practising multilingualism can bridge cultural divides, enhance communication, and build a more inclusive and harmonious world. Multilingualism is not just a tool for communication but a pathway to understanding, empathy, and unity. As we celebrate this day, let us commit to leveraging our linguistic diversity to create a more peaceful and tolerant global society.

We all have a responsibility to counter hate speech. Let us say #NoToHateSpeech.

Hauwa Mohammed Sani PhD

Department of English and Literary Studies, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria. Kaduna Nigeria

(Deputy Director, Institute for Development, Research & Training ABU Zaria).

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