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.’’
‘’There are hundreds of languages in the world, but a smile speaks them all.’’
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.
Buy the DVD online on Amazon.com
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.
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