Dr. Gerald Roche: Language rights are human rights

Antropogist Dr. Gerald Roche answered our questions about language rights: "The lack of any meaningful international mechanisms relating to language rights means that states are more or less free to do as they please, and all countries in the world exploit this to some degree."


To celebrate International Mother Language Day, we talked to anthropologist Dr. Gerald Roche about language rights. Dr. Roche is the co-chair of Global Coalition for Language Rights, a network that supports efforts toward ensuring language rights for all people. On February 22th, the coalition will celebrate Global Language Advocacy Day.

Could you please talk about the motives of the Global Coalition for the Language Rights and the future projects of the coalition?

The Global Coalition for Language Rights is a network of organizations and individuals, including activists, scholars, and translation professionals, from different parts of the world, who all work together to promote and defend language rights. We aim to inspire conversations about what language rights are, why they’re important, who has them and who doesn’t, and what can be done to change that. We are still a young, growing organization, and as we continue to expand our membership we are also expanding our work. At the moment we are focused on organizing the first ever Global Language Advocacy Day, and beyond that we are hoping to be able to start developing a multilingual information kit on language rights.

The motto of the campaign, “Language rights are human rights.” Do you think there is a consensus in the world about this statement? Is there a difference in its application to different regions in the world?

Unfortunately there is an urgent need to assert this simple truth, because language rights are not widely accepted as human rights.

If you look at international mechanisms, like those promoted by the United Nations, there are very few that recognize language rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, asserts the right to property, mobility, leisure, education, and so on, but not language. The UN Genocide Convention originally contained protections for linguistic groups and against the suppression of languages, but these were all edited out of the final version of the convention. The strongest statements of language rights in UN mechanisms are found in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which wasn’t passed until 2007, and is a completely non-binding agreement.

The lack of any meaningful international mechanisms relating to language rights means that states are more or less free to do as they please, and all countries in the world exploit this to some degree.

Human rights organizations tend to overlook issues of language rights because they are difficult to campaign for. The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, once wrote that it was difficult to generate outrage and apportion blame when it came to more complex issues like language rights, because it is often hard to clearly identify a discrete violation with a definite violator and remedy. Furthermore, because language rights are not covered by international mechanisms, human rights organizations cannot point to any ‘higher authority’ to validate their claims and give them moral authority. And language rights violations are also typically less dramatic and visible than other human rights violations: there are no corpses, no smoldering ruins, and no tragic survivors’ testimony.

When it comes to addressing these issues through research and the development of theory, academia has, unfortunately, largely turned its back on the issue of language rights. There are some scholars who recognize that language rights exist and work to defend them, but they are in a minority. Even in disciplines that deal directly with language—linguistics, applied linguistics, and sociolinguistics—support for language rights is not the dominant position. The same is true in my own discipline, anthropology.

So if you’re an activist seeking to defend your language rights, it is difficult to find support in international agencies, government, human rights organizations, or academia.

How can we change the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors around language rights and linguistic justice?

It’s very common to hear, even from people who should know better, that achieving linguistic justice for everyone, and for all languages, is simply impossible. Or that linguistic homogenization is inevitable, because of globalization, or modernity, or development. Or that it is better for peace, security, and so on for everyone to speak the same language. None of these things is true, and I think that realizing that is the first step towards changing attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors around language rights. When people say that linguistic justice is impossible, that language loss is inevitable or desirable, they are simply making excuses to justify depriving people of language rights. It is still socially and politically acceptable in almost every country on earth to claim that some people must be deprived of their language rights. We need to make that unacceptable.

 Are there specific regions in the world that your campaign finds more problematic in terms of the lack of language rights?

Unfortunately, language rights abuses are found just about everywhere in the world today. The coalition doesn’t currently carry out campaigns focusing on particular regions in the world, but I can speak from my own experience and understanding about language rights issues in a few places.

Given that it is the first year of the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages, it’s important to note how bad the situation has been, and still is, for Indigenous people and their languages in settler colonies like Australia, the United States of America, and Canada. The European settlement of these areas was incredibly violent against both people and languages, and the harmful impacts of this violence are maintained today. In Australia, despite the very important gains made by Indigenous activists and scholars, the government has shown little real interest in supporting them. They provide only limited funding for Indigenous languages, and make people compete for even that limited amount, through competitive application processes. However, all Indigenous languages should be supported equally and without question, as both redress for historical injustice and recognition of Indigenous peoples’ inalienable rights.

I’ve also lived in and conducted research in China, with Tibetan communities, where language rights are denied through different mechanisms. One of the main ways that language rights are denied in China is by the government refusing to acknowledge that most languages in the country exist. Several communities I’ve worked with in Tibet speak languages that are only found in a particular valley, or cluster of villages, and can’t be understood by Tibetans elsewhere. The government refers to these as dialects, and refuses to offer communities any support to use those languages in schooling, healthcare, media, and so on. Even when the government does recognize that a particular language exists, like the written Tibetan language, it does not fully respect the rights of people to use it. Meanwhile, the national language is aggressively promoted—nobody can avoid learning and using it.

I think what these two examples show is that vastly different countries with divergent histories and completely different political systems both find a way to undermine language rights.

Could you please elaborate on the impact of the digital shift on language rights? What is the digital language divide?

The inequalities, biases, and injustices of the real world are reproduced and amplified in the digital world. If you are denied basic language rights offline, such as the right to use your language in education and healthcare, then this will almost certainly be the case in the digital world as well. In large part this is a matter of resources. Languages that have already accumulated a lot of resources, such as dictionaries, grammars, textbooks, a corpus of texts, institutions for their study, development and reproduction, and so on (all expensive enterprises) have an unfair head-start on the internet. The languages that have accumulated all these resources, and which continue to be well-financed, are coming to dominate the internet. This digital language divide is compounded by the other digital divide—of people. The people whose languages are not online are themselves typically not online. So although we think of the internet as an open space of myriad possibilities, it is, in effect, a gated community of linguistic privilege created by the hoarding of resources.

How does the language we speak shape our experience of the internet? Can the digital tools also facilitate the representation for the underrepresented languages?

Although we think about the internet increasingly as a multimedia space, it is still mediated heavily by written forms: for the input interface, to navigate various platforms, and to find and use information. For anyone who speaks one of the world’s thousands of unwritten languages, using the internet requires mediation through a different language and a different mode of language.

Nonetheless, the internet is providing some spaces where Indigenous and minoritized languages can thrive, particularly social media. The internet also provides spaces where language activists can network and share ideas, and that’s very important. This connectivity has unquestionably accelerated language activism in the past few decades. However, the internet is also a place where people who use minoritized and Indigenous languages can encounter abuse, sometimes very aggressive and debilitating. So the internet is really a mixed blessing for underrepresented languages.

Is there a special focus within your project on Kurdish, or other Middle Eastern languages?

Our hope is for our coalition to be truly global, and new members from different countries are joining all the time. So although we don’t currently have any special focus on Kurdish or other languages of the Middle East, we would love to welcome professionals and scholars who work with these languages. Please get in touch with us via our website!

How can the readers help to increase awareness about language rights in the scope of GLAD22 campaign?

We welcome readers to join us on February 22nd in raising awareness of language rights, using the hashtag #GLAD22 and sharing the message “Language rights are human rights”. You can find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to read and share other people’s statements of support, and anyone who is interested in joining the coalition and contributing to our work in the future is welcome to send an expression of interest through our website: https://www.coalitionforlanguagerights.org/.

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