Do You Always Have the Right to Speak Your Own Language?

There were often cases when certain languages were being imposed upon people while other languages or dialects were neglected. Language policies and legislations have been in effect since early European history, but linguistic rights gained official status in politics and international accords only after 1900. They came to be increasingly seen as part of nationhood. Linguistic or language rights are also called linguistic human rights. They are defined as human and civil rights in terms of an individual and collective right to choose a certain language in order to communicate in a private or public domain. The language use in a public domain is usually divided into judicial proceedings and general use by public officials.

In 1815, seven European major powers signed a conclusion to Napoleon’s empire-building, granting the right to use Polish to Poles in Poznan alongside German for official business (Final Act of the Congress of Vienna). Peace Treaties and major multilateral and international conventions signed between the two world wars included clauses relative to the right to use any language in a private atmosphere and for instruction in primary schools through medium of own language. Different national constitutions made it a general trend to sign such conventions providing rights to minority groups, but some signatories such as Britain, France and US didn’t follow the trend. In the contemporary world, a language group or state has its collective linguistic rights i.e. the right to ensure the survival of its language and to transmit the language to future generations.

Language rights violation in US

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution adopted in 1868 with its Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses allows language minorities to claim their language rights and fight against racial and ethnic discrimination. There were cases of violation of these rights in US. Examples of cases important for the protection of linguistic rights:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court in the case Meyer v. Nebraska ruled that Nebraska law in 1919 violated the Due Process clause by restricting foreign language education. This case is frequently cited as one of the first instances in which the Supreme Court was enagaged in the due process based on civil liberties. In 1920, R.T. Meyer was charged with violation of the Siman Act (Act relating to the teaching of foreign languages in the state of Nebraska) because he was found teaching German language to a child in a private atmosphere. At that time, it was prohibited to teach foreign languages to children who were yet to complete the 8th grade. The Meyer case later influenced some other language rights violation cases.
  • In 1921, the U.S. colonial government of the Philippines passed a law (The Chinese Bookkeeping Act) which prevented keeping business records in the Chinese language. However, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Yu Cong Eng v. Trinidad case ruled that the law was unconstitutional.
  • The Supreme Court in the Farrington v. Tokushige case decided that the governmental regulation of private schools where teaching languages other than English or Hawaiian was restricted, had a negative impact on the migrant population in Hawaii.

Examples of language rights implementation in some other countries


Linguistic rights in Switzerland are defined within clearly divided language-based cantons. Switzerland has four official languages: German (speaking majority), French (western regions), Italian (southern regions) and Rumantsch (the least used national language, spoken in the canton of Grisons). Linguistic rights are, therefore, based on the priciple of territoriality (i.e. within territory) and on the principle of personality (depending on the linguistic status of an individual or collective).


The principle of personality is also applied in Canada. The Canadian federal legislation grants the right to services in French or English with no regards to territory.


Some language rights laws are oriented toward maintenance of all languages within a country and range from permission to promotion. Spain sets an example for language rights promotion. The Spanish Constitution provides for languages other than Spanish to be official in their respective communities, for example, Catalan, Galician and Basque. Between 1935 and 1975, the use of Basque was prohibited, but today the Basque Normalization Law promotes the maintenance of this language.


Some language rights laws are oriented toward assimilation and range from prohibition to toleration. The prohibition type is employed in Turkey, for example, where Kurds are forbidden to speak the Kurdish language.


In India, almost 1500 different languages are spoken, but Hindi and English are the official languages.  There is no national language.

Language rights are defined to avoid discrimination based on language and there are important national and international documents supporting the implementation of provisions granting these rights.

Language rights evolve from general human rights such as non-discrimination, freedom of expression, right to private life, and they are:

1) the right of an individual to use their language with other members – individuals have the right to freedom of expression (also to choose any language as the medium);

2) the right to one's own language in acts related to legacy, administration and justice – everybody is entitled to a fair trial. If an individual doesn’t understand the language used in criminal court proceedings, or in a criminal accusation, then this individual has the right to an interpreter who can translate the proceedings and court documents;

3) language education – everyone has the right to education and the right to choose the linguistic medium of instruction and the public media in any language.

It was in 1948 that linguistic rights were included for the first time as an international human right in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Important documents for linguistic rights include:

  • The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (approved in Spain in 1996)
  • The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (adopted in 1992, Council of Europe)
  • Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (1995, Council of Europe)

Three thoughts on languages:

‘’Language is the archives of history.’’

(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

‘’The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’’

(Ludwig Wittgenstein)

’There are hundreds of languages in the world, but a smile speaks them all.’’

(Unknown author)

Increasing numbers of children find themselves living in bubbles that extend no further than their own communities and states. Each parent and teacher should help children to understand the multi-culture, multi-ethnic world that we live in including its linguistic diversities. An enjoyable exposure to different cultures across the globe, highly recommended especially for public library and private children's DVD shelves is the animated film based on the award-winning book by David J. Smith, If the World Were a Village: A Story About the World’s people. It’s more an educational cartoon rather than a funny animated film.

Young viewers are drawn on a discovery journey through the lives of each of the 100 world villagers. If the World Were a Village educates about the diversity of languages we speak, foods we eat, places where we live, the religions we follow, and much more. The DVD has English, French, and Spanish language options, as well as English subtitles. Duration is 25 minutes.

Watching this DVD makes a great family activity, but it would also be a great video to show in classrooms. There is a four-page free downloadable teaching guide available online for free. It is advisable for parents to watch the video together with their children and to be prepared to answer different questions that may arise, such as questions related to religions, race, poverty, etc. The cartoon illustrates the concepts of tolerance, acceptance, gratitude and humanity and it will probably provoke an important family conversation about the world we live in. For example, the closing statement in the section on world religions (that all religions are at their core the same) may be quite surprising and disagreeable to some religion followers. Anyway, the creators of the DVD are clearly in favor of peace throughout the world despite all diversities and in favor of protecting human rights, as it should be.

Copyright © vox vocis. All rights reserved.

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Princessa profile image

Princessa 5 years ago from France

It is funny how I never thought about learning a language in terms of being a "right". Only after reading this I realize that being able to use a language is a right that you have.

Probably only when you live in a different country (with a language different to your own) you realize how important it becomes for you to speak your mother tongue.

I live in France but I speak to my children in my mother tongue -Spanish- because it is a way to get them to learn about my part of the world, about their ancestors and about living in a multicultural world.

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 5 years ago Author

I currently live in Germany. I had a situation when a certain person heard me speaking my mother tongue with my family in a public place and this person ''warned'' me I should speak German because I am in Germany (a total stranger). Of course, this is not the official state policy, but it still came as a shock. I speak four languages and feel rich because I do. Well, if we count that little Spanish that I've learned watching ''telenovelas'', make it 5! I love language diversity and as a linguist have interest in all topics covering this field.

YU_First 1 profile image

YU_First 1 5 years ago from Uganda

I think I too would be shocked if someone directed me into what language to speak, though I am now not wondering is language is not a social development and a requirement to be able to get our needs out of the way for instance?

Princessa profile image

Princessa 5 years ago from France

Really? I cannot believe someone had the cheek to do that, it sounds awful. Thankfully I have never encountered that type of situation yet even though I am always speaking Spanish to my children -at home and in public.

James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

Thank you for this very interesting article. I enjoyed reading it. Well done!

Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 5 years ago from South Carolina

Wow this was a great hub and I learned much I didn't know about language rights in other countries.

I totally agree with the quote,

’There are hundreds of languages in the world, but a smile speaks them all.’’ because smiles truly are the universal language.

Thanks for sharing this useful and interesting information.

PWalker281 5 years ago

When I worked in the U.S. Federal government in Washington DC back in the late 70s through mid-80s, a high-ranking official in the Federal Women's Program made the mistake of chastising two Hispanic employees for speaking Spanish at work. It was a personal conversation, but she told them they could only speak English. Not true, as she was later advised.

Also, bilingual education in the States has been extremely controversial, with opponents believing immigrants should be using English in public (as opposed to private) school classrooms as soon as possible and proponents arguing that they should be allowed to transition into English, with several years of education in their native language first. That's become a bit difficult now, given the vast number of different language groups in U.S. public schools today. Not sure what the official government policy is today.

Very informative hub, Jasmine. Rated up and useful!

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 5 years ago Author

@PWalker281: Transition to English with several years of education in native language would be extremely difficult. If a family comes to a foreign country, then the children have to learn the language of this country.

My husband-to-be is trilingual and although he spoke two languages as a child, when he went to school it was German that eventually became his mother tongue. Most linguists say that mother tongue is that language which the child learns first, but I have noticed since I came to live here in Germany that there is sth wrong with this definition. My husband-to-be and most foreigners whom I met here think and can express themselves best in German although they started learning it since kindergarten - which is logical because everything they learned (maths, science, history, you name it...) - they learned in German.

I must add, there were children who came at the age of 10, 11, 12, etc. - started school in German although they didn't know a word in this language and today they are doctors, lawyers, etc.

PWalker281 5 years ago

Back in the 70s and 80s, bilingual education in the U.S. was extremely popular AND, as I said, controversial. I'm certainly not saying that children are unable to learn a foreign language when they go to live in another country; in fact, they have an easier time of it than adults. I believe the reasoning of the bilingual ed proponents was that the school system was requiring that children learn English at the same time they were required to learn math, science, geography, etc., placing a double burden on them. But I'm really not sure how effective these programs were. Just recounting what was going on this country at that time.

I would venture to say that most immigrants who come to this country quickly learn English simply as a matter of survival, although there are very large immigrant communities here in which many older adults don't acquire English because they don't venture that much outside their communities which provide all of their needs. But their children certainly do, especially if they attend public school.

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 5 years ago Author

I was just reflecting on the situation here in Germany; most immigrants are from the Eastern world and the president of Turkey recently asked the German government to let Turkish children attend Turkish schools because, according to him, they had to learn their mother tongue first, which is absurd really. They can learn both at the same time without one damaging the knowledge of the other. There are methods to avoid language interference.

Statistics have shown that after the third generation of orient immigrants 80% of people don't speak (or understand) German (3rd GENERATION)!!! Of course, the German government will never allow this - they are working on the intergration of immigrants which would not be possible if they rejected the "new" culture they came to live in.

In addition, German children cannot learn English in kindergarten because the kindergartens and schools are so overpopulated with children from Orient and it is said that foreigners must learn German first. I mean, they do, but this is limiting native German speakers - not fair at all!

I taught English as a foreign language to preschool children aged 3-6 for six years and I can testify that the children who start learning a foreign language very early (it doesn't have to be English) have precious benefits from this even later in school. There are numerous research results showing that children who learn a foreign language cope better with other subjects in school such as maths, science etc. than those children who don't.

My little sister is 10 and she is already learning two foreign languages - and, she's doing great.

Each member in my family speaks at least two languages (I speak five) so I find it unbelievable that there are people who simply won't learn the language of the country they came to live in.

When I started the first level in German last year, there were people who live in Germany for 30 years and they attended the same level as me who came to Germany a month ago. Can you believe this? Their excuse was that they didn't need it!!! Well, if they didn't need it than they didn't communicate with the "outside world" and that's anti-social (I am definitely pro-social).

P.S. What a comment on my part - I could have written a hub about it, ha, ha :) I certainly gave a "task" to read, didn't I?

PWalker281 5 years ago

Very informative comment about what's happening in Germany re: immigrants and language learning, Jasmine (yes, it could very well have been an article :-)).

My daughter studied Spanish and French in the 1st and 2nd grades at a private Montessori school (this would never have happened in public school) and she did very well. She also started studying Japanese on her own as a teenager, but didn't go very far with it (although today, at 30, she enjoys watching Manga in Japanese with subtitles).

This may be an oversimplification or generalization but Americans tend to be monolingual, speaking only English, perhaps because we aren't surrounded by countries in which other languages are spoken (well, there is Mexico to the south and Canada, where French is spoken, to the north).

I studied French in high school and college and was almost fluent but have lost it because I never really used it after college. I've always thought about brushing up on it to regain that fluency but simply haven't gotten around to it .

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 5 years ago Author

@whiplashinfo: Speaking our own language at any time and place is one of the rare things we should actually take for granted. Because of those countries that prohibit their citizens to speak other languages aside from their own, we all learned that this natural right can be and sometimes is violated. Thanks for the comment :)

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

This was a most interesting hub! I agree that kids absorb languages with ease the younger they are. When I was in school languages were first taught in high school. I took Latin. Not much of that used in common conversation. Ha! Wish I had taken Spanish. I have taken a few free Spanish lessons and know some words but probably slaughter the syntax. You are fortunate in that you can speak and understand so many languages. It amazes me that people who move to other countries do not at least TRY to learn the language! That would be the first thing that I would try to do. We have an upcoming Presidential election in the U.S. and where we live (Houston, Texas) the ballots are in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. Not sure about other places in our country. Up votes and sharing.

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago Author

In Vietnamese, too? That's interesting. I can't imagine living in Germany not knowing the language. It doesn't sound so nice as Italian or English, but I'm happy to learn more every day.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM

vox: I love this hub! I was a language teacher and I didn't know all these specific laws and court cases. This is fascinating. I also didn't realize India didn't have a national language. I know the languages of Europe and where they are used, but this article opened up other parts of the world for me. The DVD sounds and looks interesting to watch. Thanks for a fascinating hub!

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago Author

I'm glad you've learned something new from this hub, Suzette. Unfortunately, even today there are many cases of language discrimination. Thanks for stopping by :)

Katiadejuan profile image

Katiadejuan 2 years ago from London, UK

Great hub! I enjoyed reading it.

Just wanted to mention that Spain does not fully promote the use of all languages, since although it is true that Galician, Basque, Catalan and even Aranès have an official recognition within the laws of the country, the Bable or Asturianu and its variations not only are not recognized as an official language yet, but also every time that people have tried to ask for its recognition and its teaching at schools to preserve the language the government keeps refusing it.

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