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Linguistic Human Rights

Abstract and Keywords

Genuine peaceful contact presupposes a mutual will to try to understand the other party's signed or spoken signals and symbols; to accommodate, and to learn at least some of them (often using a pidgin, an auxiliary simplified language), or to learn a common lingua franca, foreign to both. For dominant groups, their own rights have often been, and still are, invisible: they take them for granted. Even today, this is one of the problems when discussing and trying to formulate linguistic/language rights (LRs). Dominant linguistic groups often feel a need to formally codify their language rights only when dominated groups, for example indigenous/tribal peoples, or minorities of various kinds (ITMs), start demanding LRs for themselves. Most people connect LRs mainly to ITMs, and most LRs are found among special minority or indigenous rights rather than general human rights (HRs). This article discusses LRs as HRs, LRs versus linguistic human rights (LHRs), LHRs for linguistic majorities and minorities, collective LHRs, justifications for LHRs, individual positive LHRs, and LHRs and the role of indigenous peoples.

Keywords: language rights, human rights, linguistic human rights, minorities, indigenous peoples, linguistic majorities

16.1 Introduction: Language Rights as Human Rights

The history of language rights is probably almost as long as the history of humans as language-using animals, that is tens of thousands of years. As soon as people using different “languages” were in contact with each other, they had to negotiate how to communicate verbally. Many “negotiations” may initially have been physically violent, without much verbal language, oral or signed. The linguistic outcome of negotiations where people wanted to exchange goods and services, rather than, or in addition to conquest, were probably also determined by the amount of physical force and visible material resources that each group could muster. In most encounters it was probably only the stronger party that had any “language rights”: they needed to do much less accommodation than the weaker party, if any. The groups with “language rights” may have seen this practice (their “right” to use their own language(s) or the language(s) of their choice) as something self-evident, just as most speakers of dominant languages do now.

Genuine peaceful contact presupposes a mutual will to try to understand the other party's signed or spoken signals and symbols, to accommodate, and to learn at least some of them (often using a pidgin, an auxiliary simplified language), or to learn a common lingua franca, foreign to both. For dominant groups, their own rights have often been, and are still, invisible: they take them for granted. Even today, this is one of the problems when discussing and trying to formulate linguistic/language rights (hereafter LRs). Dominant linguistic groups often feel a need to formally codify their LRs only when dominated groups, for example indigenous/tribal peoples, or minorities of various kinds (hereafter ITMs) start demanding language rights for themselves.

Most people connect language rights mainly to ITMs, and most LRs are found among special minority or indigenous rights rather than general human rights (hereafter HRs). (p. 236) Many states around the world have had legally codified language rights for minorities for centuries (see, e.g., de Varennes 1996, 2008), but summaries of or comparative literature on these rights are still scarce. The literature is often (unconsciously?) Eurocentric: only rights in Europe or Europe's “main” settler countries (e.g. Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, the USA) count and are described, even when other parts of the world have had similar debates, codifications, or practices much earlier. Amartya Sen (2005), the economics Nobel laureate, described this bias in relation to peaceful debates and argumentation as ways of resolving conflicts (see also Spivak 2008). Scientific imperialism looms very large here.

Bilateral formally codified language rights started to appear in the West mainly in connection with religious minorities that also happened to be linguistic minorities (Capotorti 1979:2). The first multilateral Western treaty that contained language-related rights was the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (see Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson 1994 for a short history).

The Peace Treaties that concluded the First “World” War, and major multilateral and international conventions under the League of Nations improved the LRs protection. After the Second World War, the rights formulated by the United Nations were supposed to protect minority persons as individuals, and collective minority rights were seen as unnecessary. Better protection of linguistic minorities only started to develop after Francesco Capotorti, as a UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Minorities, published his 1979 report. The protection is still far from satisfactory.

Some LRs started to be described as Linguistic Human Rights (hereafter LHRs) relatively late. When I used the concept in a course in Finland in 1969, I had never heard or seen it, but I had an intuitive feeling that some language rights were so important that they should be seen as inalienable human rights. Earlier, language rights and human rights were more unconnected. Both were the domain of lawyers, with few if any linguists involved. Both areas were driven by practical–political concerns, and the research was mainly descriptive, not analytical. Even today, there is a fairly tight separation.

Few lawyers know much about language or education (some exceptions are, e.g,. Fernand de Varennes 1996, 2000; Sandra del Valle 2003; Robert Dunbar 2001; Kristin Henrard 2000; or Patrick Thornberry, esp. Thornberry and Gibbons 1997). Introducing LHRs “did not initially find a great deal of support among legal scholars” (de Varennes 2000:68), mainly because LHRs were seen as collective as opposed to individual rights. Likewise, many of the sociolinguists, political scientists, or educationalists who are today writing about LHRs know too little about international law (also here there are exceptions, e.g.: May 2001; Phillipson 2009; Tollefson and Tsui 2003).

The first multidisciplinary book about LHRs seems to be from the mid-1990s (Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson 1994). De Varennes (1996) and Thornberry's (1991, 2002) pioneering books contain much about LHRs even if they do not use the term. Today this is a fast growing area (as one can also see when googling the term “linguistic human rights”), but further concept clarification and multidisciplinary teamwork is urgently needed. The first concept in need of clarification is of course the main topic of this article: what are LHRs?

(p. 237) 16.2 Language Rights Versus Linguistic Human Rights

Are all language rights linguistic human rights? Hardly. A preliminary definition that has been used is: “(Some) language rights + human rights = linguistic human rights.” The question then is: which language rights should be included and which should be excluded?

Susanne Mancini and Bruno de Witte define language rights as:

fundamental rights protecting language-related acts and values. The term “fundamental” denotes the fact that these rights are entrenched in the constitution of a country, or in an international treaty binding on that country. (Mancini and de Witte 2008:247)

I have for some decades defined LHRs as:

only those language rights are linguistic HUMAN rights which are so basic for a dignified life that everybody has them because of being human; therefore, in principle no state (or individual) is allowed to violate them (e.g. Skutnabb-Kangas 2008a:109).

Mancini and de Witte's (2008) legally oriented definition is more precise than my sociologically oriented one, even if they do not use the term linguistic human rights. It is broader than mine. Various constitutions are vague about language rights, stating that their precise formulations are given in separate laws or regulations. If these are also seen as belonging to “constitutions,” there would be many “language rights” in these specifications that in my view cannot be considered linguistic human rights. One example would be regulations about the size of lettering in each language on product labels, as found in Canada, Latvia, or Slovakia. On the other hand, their definition is also narrower: it does not allow anything that has not yet been codified in any country, meaning new suggestions are, per definition, not (yet?) language rights.

Mancini and de Witte's “fundamental” is defined legally, whereas my “basic” is more a moral judgment. Mine is a very vague definition: even when various central human rights treaties and declarations enumerate fundamental rights, what one sees as basic or fundamental for a dignified life depends on the definer's ethics.1 On the other hand, it opens possibilities for proposing as LHRs rights which have not yet been codified as such. One example would be an unconditional right to at least elementary education through the medium of one's own language (or mother tongue—see Skutnabb-Kangas and McCarty (2008) for definitions).

(p. 238) LHRs, just as most other human rights, are to some extent relative. “Full” or “maximal” LHRs (whatever they are) can be seen as one end of a continuum where the other end could be linguicide, linguistic genocide (see the discussion on this in Skutnabb-Kangas and Dunbar, 2010). Many language/linguistic rights would come somewhere in the middle of the continuum: those rights that, even if they may be seen as important rights, do not belong in the realm of linguistic human rights.

Mancini and de Witte also distinguish between core rights and ancillary rights:

The core linguistic right is the right to speak one's language, or, more precisely, the language of one's choice. The core right is, or can be, accompanied by a series of ancillary rights without which the right to speak a language becomes less valuable for its beneficiaries, such as: the right to be understood by others (for example, by public authorities), the right to a translation or an interpretation from other languages (for example, in the course of a meeting or trial at which those other languages are spoken), the right to compel others to speak one's language, and the right to learn the language (Mancini and de Witte 2008:247–8; emphasis added).

One might imagine that their “core rights” could be seen as LHRs, whereas the “ancillary rights” might be “only” language rights. Not so. The “right to learn the language” should obviously be a core LHR; this would follow from Mancini and de Witte's own argumentation. If children are not allowed to learn their parents or ancestors’ language at a high level (which presupposes the right to use it as the main medium of education for the first many years), there will be nobody left to “speak one's language” after a few generations. Of the world's almost 7,000 mainly spoken languages (6,909, see Lewis 2009), at least some 4,500 are tribal/indigenous (Oviedo and Maffi 2000; Terralingua2). Estimates claim that minimally half, maybe up to 90–95 per cent of today's spoken languages will be extinct or at least no longer be learned by children by the year 2100.3 Learning and knowing one's language/mother tongue is a necessary prerequisite for being able to enjoy the right to speak it. A more strict and principled definition of LHRs is urgently needed. It requires much analytical work, yet to be done.

16.3 LHRs for Linguistic Majorities and Minorities

Dominant linguistic majorities are groups that speak the same language and that constitute over half the population. They usually have all rights that can be seen as LHRs; that is, they can use their languages orally and in writing in all situations in their countries. (p. 239) Still, some of them feel the need to strengthen their LRs—the new (July 2009) Slovak Language Law is an example.4

Dominated majorities are groups in former colonies where one language group is a demographic majority, or where there is no group that would be demographically over 50 per cent of the population and where all groups are “minorities.” They are in a different situation. Often a former colonial language, spoken by a very small elite in the country, is either an or the official language, used for most prestige functions, including parliament, courts, higher education, etc. Local languages are used in homes, on the market, for local politics, etc. This is a typical diglossic situation with a functional differentiation between the High and Low languages.

Dominated majorities are legally in a tricky situation since international binding instruments specifically for demographic but oppressed (or even politically dominant) majorities have not been developed. Although the speakers of the oppressing language are demographically a minority, they do not want to be regarded as such. During the colonial era many of the colonized also internalized the colonizers’ views of “local” languages as backward, primitive, not worth anything, and these images still linger strongly. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a strong advocate of rights for African and other mother tongues,5 captured the challenges in his 1987 book Decolonising the mind.

Linguist-philosopher Sándor Szilágyi (1994) has presented a suggestion for a “Bill on the Rights Concerning Ethnic and Linguistic Identity, and the Fair and Harmonious Coexistence of Ethnic and Linguistic Communities.” In principle, it is a non-discrimination bill, but it defines rights for both majorities and minorities. Minorities are defined demographically, as consisting of minimally 8 per cent of the population of a local administrative district. His definition of “equality of chances” means that a minority must, for instance, have the same chance as the majority to use its own language in administration, as a teaching language in school and at university, etc., without needing to bear extra costs. Otherwise the minority are forced to finance majority-language-medium services for the majority through their taxes, without getting the same services for themselves—and this is the most common situation today. This would specify majority LRs and make minority LRs equal to them.

Linguistic minorities have some HRs support for various aspects of using their languages in areas such as public administration, courts, the media, etc. (the 1993 and 1994 books edited by Frowein, Hofmann, and Oeter about minority rights in European States give excellent overviews of the situation in Europe). Many of these rights are enshrined in the constitutions or special minority rights bills in a number of countries; some of these are extremely detailed (e.g. Canada, Latvia).

A range of regional instruments grant LRs to minorities—these loom large in the two fairly recent European instruments, the European Charter and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. In the Charter (1998), a state can choose which (p. 240) paragraphs or subparagraphs it wishes to apply (a minimum of 35 is required) and the languages it wants to apply them to. The Framework Convention in particular has been criticized by politicians and international lawyers, who are normally very careful in their comments. Law professor Patrick Thornberry's general assessment is:

In case any of this [provisions in the Convention] should threaten the delicate sensibilities of States, the Explanatory Report makes it clear that they are under no obligation to conclude “agreements”… . Despite the presumed good intentions, the provision represents a low point in drafting a minority right; there is just enough substance in the formulation to prevent it becoming completely vacuous (Thornberry 1997:356–7).

16.4 Collective LHRs

One of the main legal obstacles to accepting some LRs as LHRs can be placed within the still ongoing debates about the various generations of human rights where only individual rights (“the first generation”) have been recognized by some as “proper” human rights. Any linguistic rights “seem to imply some kind of a collective nature” (de Varennes 2000:68), and collective rights in legally binding international treaties have been shunned for political reasons (see Capotorti 1979). Languages are of course only meaningfully used with other people. Legislating about individual inner speech is impossible.

Linguicide, language rights, and LHRs are all phenomena at both individual and collective/group levels. For instance, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities supposedly provides rights to individuals, whereas both the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities are about collectives (even if both are constantly jumping between the individual and collective level). Linguicide also involves both individuals and groups/peoples (see Churchill 1997, final chapter, for discussion). In addition to humans having LHRs, some instruments also treat languages themselves (as parts of the intangible human heritage) as right-holders, for example the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

The difficulty in formulating some kind of a collective right while keeping it within the language of individual rights is beautifully (and, for non-lawyers, almost pitifully ridiculously) illustrated by the still most far-reaching general article in international law that creates obligations for states about the right to use one's own language, namely Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).6 It provides that:

in those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, a child belonging to such a minority shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his (p. 241) group, to enjoy his own culture, to profess and practise his own religion, or to use his own language. (ICCPR, Art. 27, emphases added)

This provision is echoed literally in Article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC),7 except “or persons of indigenous origin” and “who is indigenous” have been added in the first and second lines, and “or she,” and “or her” have also been added. Female and indigenous children have gained humanity as legal language-using subjects, except in the only two countries which have not ratified the CRC: Somaliland and the USA.

Article 27 was earlier seen in a much narrower way, as only granting some protection from discrimination. However, the UN Human Rights Committee has noted in its General Comment No. 23 of 1994 on Article 27 of the ICCPR8 that, although phrased in the negative, the Article requires states to take positive measures in support of minorities. Unfortunately, the Human Rights Committee has not spelled out what those measures are. Likewise, the HRC stated that the existence of a minority does not depend on a decision by the state but must be established by objective criteria, an important factor in relation to countries which have denied having (certain) linguistic minorities, such as France, Greece, Turkey, etc. The revised Human Rights Fact Sheet on ICCPR from the Committee (2005) sustains these interpretations.

The most important collective LHRs are the rights of indigenous/tribal people and linguistic minority groups to exist as such, without being forced to assimilate, and to be allowed and enabled to transfer their language to the next generation, if they so wish. These rights are included and their contents are spelled out in several HRs instruments. In the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP),9 Paragraph 1 of Article 8 provides that indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture. And Article 13, para. 1 states:

Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons. (UNDRIP, Art. 13, para. 1)

Article 13, para. 2, continues: “States shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected.”

The Framework Convention provides in Article 5, para. 1 that the Parties to the treaty will promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve essential elements of their identity, including their religion, language, traditions, and cultural heritage, and Article 5, para. 2 requires that Parties refrain from policies or practices aimed at assimilation of persons belonging to national minorities against their will.

(p. 242) 16.5 Justifications for Linguistic Human Rights

LHRs have been questioned, mainly by political scientists. Researchers debate what kind of language rights can be justified on what bases, that is which demands justify what kinds of supply. The main issue is whether all or only some (and in that case which ones) of those inequalities that are due to characteristics (in the individual or in society) that are not chosen by the individual should be “compensated for” or “rectified” by the state. Being born to parents who speak a language that is not the dominant language in the society where the person lives, and suffering injustice if this language has low status, could be seen as justifying a demand for “compensation”, that is, that the state should offer more supplies, such as mother-tongue-medium education.

Most (neo)liberal political scientists do not recognize, though, that states should support the maintenance of the existence of minority groups beyond present generations. This seems partly to be because they regard speaking a minority language as some kind of a handicap. According to this view, such a “handicap” should not be carried on to the following generations. If parents choose to do it, it is their responsibility. The neoliberal view concentrates on individual rights. Therefore, minority groups as groups do not, according to many political scientists, have justifiable demands to continue their existence as minority groups. They are given the choice either to assimilate on an individual basis, or to continue without a justified claim to support for collective rights, for instance the right to transfer their languages to the next generation through state education. Thus they deny the validity of what in this chapter are considered as two basic LHRs.

Many lawyers, educationalists, and sociolinguists subscribe to a different analysis. The linguistic protection of national minorities rests according to the former High Commissioner on the Rights of National Minorities of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Max van der Stoel, on two HRs pillars. These have also been called negative and positive rights, or non-discrimination rights and affirmative rights. Van der Stoel distinguishes between:

the right to non-discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights; and the right to the maintenance and development of identity through the freedom to practice or use those special and unique aspects of their minority life—typically culture, religion, and language. The first protection….ensures that minorities receive all of the other protections without regard to their ethnic, national, or religious status; they thus enjoy a number of linguistic rights that all persons in the state enjoy, such as freedom of expression and the right in criminal proceedings to be informed of the charge against them in a language they understand, if necessary through an interpreter provided free of charge.

The second pillar, encompassing affirmative obligations beyond non-discrimination….includes a number of rights pertinent to minorities simply by virtue of their minority status, such as the right to use their language. This pillar is necessary (p. 243) because a pure non-discrimination norm could have the effect of forcing people belonging to minorities to adhere to a majority language, effectively denying them their rights to identity. (Van der Stoel 1999:8–9; emphases added)

In a similar vein, Ruth Rubio-Marín (Professor of Constitutional Law in Seville, Spain) distinguishes two kinds of interest in language rights. One is “the expressive interest in language as a marker of identity,” the other an “instrumental interest in language as a means of communication” (Rubio-Marín 2003:56). The expressive (or non-instrumental) language claims

aim at ensuring a person's capacity to enjoy a secure linguistic environment in her/his mother tongue and a linguistic group's fair chance of cultural self-reproduction. (Rubio-Marín 2003:56; emphasis added)

It is only these expressive rights (that correspond to van der Stoel's second pillar) that Rubio-Marín calls “language rights in a strict sense” (2003:56); that is, these could be seen as linguistic human rights (LHRs). This formulation beautifully integrates individual rights with collective rights, in the sense I suggest below. The instrumental language claims (van der Stoel's first pillar) on the other hand

aim at ensuring that language is not an obstacle to the effective enjoyment of rights with a linguistic dimension, to the meaningful participation in public institutions and democratic process, and to the enjoyment of social and economic opportunities that require linguistic skills. (Rubio-Marín 2003:56)

Negative debates ensue when some instrumentalists falsely claim that those interested in the expressive aspects exclude the more instrumental communication-oriented aspects (for instance, unequal class- or gender-based access to formal language or to international languages). Most ITM groups are interested in both types of rights, expressive and instrumental, and often one is a prerequisite for the other, with both being alternately causal and dependent variables. Many of us work with both aspects, and see them as complementary, not mutually exclusive. Individual and collective LHRs presuppose and support each other—“either/or” does not work.

16.6 Individual Positive LHRs

Individual LHRs may relate to a right to

  1. 1. identify with languages (identity rights);

  2. 2. learn languages (mother tongue, second/official language, foreign languages) through formal education (educational rights);

  3. 3. use languages in various situations and for various purposes (functional rights);

  4. 4. change/shift languages voluntarily, or not (protection-against-forced-assimilation rights).

(p. 244) All of these rights are in several ways linked and intertwined, and mostly presuppose each other. They cut across the earlier distinctions. Identity rights belong to Van der Stoel's second pillar. Expressive rights and functional rights belong to the first pillar. And instrumental rights, educational rights, and protection-against-forced-assimilation belong to both. I will restrict the rest of the presentation to some of the more important LHRs.

16.6.1 The right to change/shift languages

If an individual (or a group) wants to assimilate into a dominant language group, at the cost of learning, using, and identifying with their own language(s), it should be their right to do so. But very often this kind of assimilation is not voluntary. Many people (are made to) believe that they have to choose: either the mother tongue (and a strong identity, knowledge of their ancestors, and cultural heritage), or a dominant language (and better life prospects in relation to jobs, etc). In addition to the promises about a better future often being false anyway, there is no need to choose. It is perfectly possible to learn several languages, including the mother tongue, well, and so to succeed in school and to have a multilingual, multicultural identity. Not having access to mainly mother-tongue-medium education mostly leads to linguistic and other assimilation, even against the wishes of people. The United Nation's 2004 Human Development Report10 linked cultural liberty to language rights and human development and argued that there is

no more powerful means of “encouraging” individuals to assimilate to a dominant culture than having the economic, social and political returns stacked against their mother tongue. Such assimilation is not freely chosen if the choice is between one's mother tongue and one's future. (UN, Human Development Report:33)

Thus not being pressured to assimilate linguistically should be a basic individual (and collective) LHR. Two prerequisites for this are, first, that people have enough solid research-based information about the consequences of their choices. Most ITM people around the world do not have this today. Secondly, alternatives must exist in the educational system.

16.6.2 The right to education through the medium of one's mother tongue

Influential, though non-legally binding principles for mother-tongue-medium (MTM) education have been developed through the office of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, in The Hague Recommendations Regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities of October, 1996.11 In this document, MTM education is recom (p. 245) mended at all levels, including secondary education, and this includes bilingual teachers in the dominant language as a second language (Arts 11–13). In its Explanatory Note, the following comment is made about subtractive education:12

[S]ubmersion-type approaches whereby the curriculum is taught exclusively through the medium of the State language and minority children are entirely integrated into classes with children of the majority are not in line with international standards. (OSCE, Hague Recommendations Regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities:para. 5)

The submersion education through the medium of a dominant language that most indigenous/tribal peoples in the world and many minorities undergo today is contrary to recommendations based on solid research, which shows that the more years ITM children study mainly through the medium of their own languages, the better their results are in all subjects and also in the dominant language.13

The submersion approach violates the right to education. It can also sociologically and educationally be seen as genocidal, within the meaning of Articles II(b) and II(e) of the United Nations’ 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.14 Likewise, forms of this education may legally come within the definitions of a crime against humanity of the Convention (see Skutnabb-Kangas and Dunbar 2010).

16.7 Why LHRs—the Role of Indigenous Peoples

The often appalling ignorance among decision makers at various levels about basic language matters is a serious deficiency. As a result, important language status planning decisions are often based on false information, even in situations where the correct (p. 246) information is easily available and has in fact been offered to the decision makers. More interdisciplinary cooperation between HRs lawyers, sociolinguists, and educationists is urgently needed (see the Introduction in Kontra et al. 1999 and May 1999, 2001). Often Western research additionally suffers from ethnocentricity, and a lack of knowledge of the languages and cultures of others (see, e.g., Hountondji 2002, Smith Tuhiwai 1999).

But a lack of LHRs is not only an information problem. The political will of states to grant LHRs is the main problem. Human rights, especially economic and social rights, should, according to Tomaševski (1996), act as correctives to the free market. She states that

the purpose of international human rights law is….to overrule the law of supply and demand and remove price-tags from people and from necessities for their survival. (Tomaševski 1996:104)

These necessities for survival include not only basic food and housing (which would come under economic and social rights), but also basic requirements for the sustenance of a dignified life, including basic civil, political, and cultural rights—and LHRs are a part of cultural rights. Tomaševski and many others write that unless there is a redistribution of resources for implementing HRs, progress will be limited. It is of little or no use to spread knowledge of HRs as a basis for self-directed human development, unless the resources for implementation follow, and that can only happen through a radical redistribution of the world's material resources.

Moreover, state policies leading towards diminishing the numbers of languages are plagued by monolingual reductionism, falsely viewing monolingualism (in a state or dominant language) as something

  • normal and natural; however, most countries are multilingual;

  • desirable (more efficient and economical); however, if citizens do not understand the language they are governed in and if huge talent is wasted because children do not profit and are even harmed by formal education, this is inefficient and wasteful;

  • sufficient: everything important exists in “big” languages, especially English; this is nonsense;

  • inevitable: only romantics regret the disappearance of languages and linguistic homogenisation; however, linguistic diversity and multilingualism enhance creativity and are necessary in information societies where the main products are diverse ideas and diverse knowledges. (Skutnabb-Kangas 2000)

In addition, states seem to regard the granting of LHRs as divisive. The rationale is that they result in minorities reproducing themselves as minorities. These minorities then supposedly follow the old nation-state mentality and want cultural autonomy, economic autonomy and, in the end, political autonomy: their own state. Thus MTM education for minorities is ultimately seen as leading to the disintegration of “nation-states.” These erroneous beliefs are an important causal factor in linguistic genocide and a lack of LHRs in education.

(p. 247) One reason for maintaining all the world's languages, partly through binding LHRs, is as follows: Linguistic diversity and biodiversity are correlationally and causally related. Most of the world's megabiodiversity is in areas under the management or guardianship of indigenous peoples. Much of the knowledge about how to maintain biodiversity (especially in biodiversity hotspots) is encoded in the small languages of indigenous and local peoples. This knowledge is often more accurate and detailed than the knowledge that scientists have, according to The International Council of Science,15 and it does not transfer to other languages if ITMs shift to a dominant language. Through killing ITM languages or letting them die, we kill the prerequisites for maintaining biodiversity (see Skutnabb-Kangas 2000 for details).

UNDRIP's provision on MTM education does not prevent this: education in the dominant (state) language is “free”16 for them in the same way as for dominant group children, whereas MTM education is dependent on whether they have the financial resources to “establish” it:

  1. 1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.

  2. 2. Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.

  3. 3. States shall, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language. (UNDRIP, Article 14)

People who lose their linguistic and cultural identity may lose an essential element in a social process that commonly teaches respect for nature and understanding of the natural environment and its processes. Forcing this cultural and linguistic conversion on indigenous and other traditional peoples not only violates their human rights, but also undermines the health of the world's ecosystems and the goals of nature conservation.17

Cultural diversity is closely linked to biodiversity. Humanity's collective knowledge of biodiversity and its use and management rests in cultural diversity; conversely conserving biodiversity often helps strengthen cultural integrity and values (World Resources Institute, World Conservation Union, and United Nations Environment Programme 1992:21).

Linguistic human rights are a necessary but not sufficient tool in the struggle for social justice.


(1) Katarina Tomaševski, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, has discussed “a dignified life” in several publications. “Dignity” is mentioned in many international human rights instruments (e.g. Article 43 in UNDRIP).

(3) The figures come from various writings by Michael Krauss from Alaska; UNESCO uses both 50% and 90–95%.

(4) See, e.g. Schöpflin (2009).

(5) See the Asmara Declaration, 〈〉 accessed September 1, 2011.

(6) 1966, in force from 1976, 〈〉 accessed September 1, 2011.

(8) 4 April 1996, UN Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.5. See 〈〉 accessed September 1, 2011.

(10) 〈〉 accessed September 1, 2011.

(11) 〈〉 accessed September 1, 2011.

(12) Subtractive education, through the medium of a dominant language for ITM children, subtracts from their linguistic repertoire: they learn (some of) the new language at the cost of their own language. Instead, teaching should be additive—they should learn the dominant language at a native or near-native level, in addition to developing their mother tongues to a very high level through education. This is perfectly possible through mother-tongue-based multilingual education. For the theoretical background and many examples, see, e.g., Skutnabb-Kangas 1984, 2000; García et al. 2006; Skutnabb-Kangas et al. 2009, Skutnabb-Kangas and Dunbar (in press); Heugh and Skutnabb-Kangas (in press).

(13) See Grin 2008; Mohanty 2000; Ilboudo and Nikiema (forthcoming) show that bilingual education in Burkina Faso gets better results, in a shorter time, and costs less, than French-medium education.

(14) E793, 1948; 78 U.N.T.S. 277, entered into force January 12, 1951; for the full text, see 〈〉 accessed September 1, 2011.

(16) There are school fees in over 100 countries, see Tomaševski 2000.