August 18, 2003

Language Rights and Political Theory - Chapter Summaries and Specific Criticisms

Welcome to part 1 of what I'm planning as a three or four part discussion of language policy, starting with my long awaited review of Kymlicka, Patten, et al's Language Rights and Political Theory. Part 2 is almost finished, and I'm part of the way through part 3. It's long, folks. Pull up a pew an' set a spell.

If you're Jim over at Uncle Jazzbeau's Gallimaufrey, you can follow along with your own copy. I have included spoilers, so be warned. For everybody else, let me reveal the surprise ending in invisible text: The British did it, the French helped them and the Americans covered it up.

Okay, now on to the serious stuff.

Language Rights and Political Theory brings together a number of authors, primarily working within a mostly Rawlsian liberal framework, to investigate issues in language policy. There are a number of things that strike me about this work in contrast to other efforts to flesh out a theory of language policy.

First, it is abundantly clear that the authors have only a handful of instances of language contact in mind as they write. The arguments and principles advanced in this volume derive overwhelmingly from just four regimes: Canada, the United States, Belgium and Spain. There is mention of other places and cases - it is not the work of 12 authors with blinders to the rest of the world and Jacob Levy is one of the few to give anything close to equal time to language issues outside the west - but there is almost nothing here of value to people interested in post-colonial language policy and there is little sense in this volume of the diversity of linguistic contact situations.

Still, these four flagship cases - each involving linguistic conflicts that have come to boil in the last 50 years in well connected, reasonably wealthy, occidental liberal democratic states - are informative. A focus on the most powerful states is not, per se, a criticism. The powerful are, obviously, powerful, and their conflicts tend to colour everyone's politics, even those quite culturally and politically remote.

Second, with the exception of Stephen May, I don't think any of the authors are particularly trained in or aware of linguistics. I can't blame them - the most visible school of linguistics in the English speaking world is almost completely without value to a discussion of language policy. Still, there are places where this lacuna is especially unfortunate.

However, the book does offes some valuable points for debate and clues in the search for a more productive theory of language policy. I will review each chapter in turn, and then put forward a more general critique in the second post. In the third part, I'm going to fulfill my long running promise to put up a post sketching an alternative to liberalism as a normative political theory.

Chapter Summaries and Individual Critiques

I. Language Rights and Political Theory: Contexts, Issues and Approaches

This introductory chapter, from the Canadian co-editors Will Kymlicka and Alan Patten, outlines some of the challenges language policy poses for liberalism and some of the specific issues a liberal theory of language policy has to face.

Language simply can not be handled by analogy with those areas where liberals are more at home: race, class, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other traditional concerns. We have no difficulty envisioning collective institutions which are indifferent to those things, but we are hard pressed to imagine institutions which do not, either de jure or de facto, favour some small set of languages over others. Language rights are essentially collective rights - to conceive of them as rights individuals can exercise independently of their community is to seriously misunderstand the nature of language.

Kymlicka and Patten go on to describe the various fields of policy that are most frequently subject to linguistic prescription. This list includes access to government services, participation in public discourse, employment rights, access to education, the situation of indigenous minorities, historical oppression, the problems posed by immigration, and state language polices as a tool of constructive nationalism. They also takes an initial stab at classifying language policies by their scope and nature, but this sort of policy distinction is, regrettably, strictly limited to European and North American states.

II. Language Rights: Exploring the competing rationales

Ruth Rubio-Marín places a great deal of emphasis on the distinction between instrumental and non-instrumental language rights. This seems - if I am reading her correctly - to represent the distinction between language rights granted to individuals in order to enable them to enjoy political liberties and rights designed to offer security to language communities, ensuring that their language is able to continue to exist. An example of instrumental rights is the requirement - fixed by precedent in the US and codified under the European Charter of Rights - that people brought before a court be able to understand the charges against them and be able to defend themselves, even if that means employing the services of interpreters and translators. In contrast, an example of a non-instrumental language right is the right to schools in your language of choice, even if it is not the dominant language in your community.

Rubio-Marín goes on to investigate the different kinds of measures this distinction entails, and advances the idea that language policies should properly be placed in a framework of legal rights rather than mere regulation.

III. A Liberal Democratic approach to Language Justice

David Laitin and Rob Reich offer a contrast to Rubio-Marín's advocacy of a rights-based framework for understanding language policy. They first attack this rights-based conception by dividing liberal normative approaches to language policy into three categories: compensatory justice, nationalism and liberal culturalism. They argue against each one in turn.

Compensatory justice is identified with the idea that linguistic minority communities are or have been the victims of unjust policies and that language rights are justified on the basis of compensation. The example they use is Catalonia, where the rhetoric of historical injustice has been used to gain the help of the state in re-establishing the linguistic security of their language. This is problematic for Laitin and Reich because few minority language speakers are willing to accept compensation in order to integrate into the majority community. Therefore, they must envision their language as something of intrinsic value. This undermines claims for compensatory justice in their view.

The archetypical instances of nationalist language policies are in Eastern Europe, where most of the current states are less than a century old ad their the national language came into being in conjunction with the demand for a nation-state. The language served as proof of the existence of a unified nation and the desire for a nation served to promote the language. Liberal nationalism therefore envisions language policy as a mechanism for reclaiming cultural sovereignty or national territorial rights. Laitin and Reich regard this position as foundationally incompatible with liberalism, since it entails a state authority over people's freedom to live in the language they choose.

Liberal culturalism is the position Laitin and Reich associate with Will Kymlicka, but it is one I would associate with an uncritical sort of multi-culturalism. It is a position which tends to regard groups which share an identity - be it ethnic, religious, racial or linguistic, as a single entity possessed of rights that merit protection. Laitin and Reich point out the difficulties this presents for the individualistic focus of liberal theory. These groups do not speak with one mouth, nor do they have a common view of what they want or need.

They offer an alternative: the prospect of politically negotiated language rights. Where a language community is able to mobilise within a system of essentially democratic decision-making to secure its language rights, they should be secured. Like all but the least liberal monolingualism advocates, they deplore the beatings children once received for using their own languages in school, but otherwise do not see any particular liberal interdiction against monolingualist policies. They explicitly advocate the politicisation of language issues, limited only by general liberal principles of just and unjust behaviour towards individuals. I think they are rightly critical of liberal theorists for distrusting democratic processes to decide on what rights are appropriate for which communities. We are, after all, able to advance more sophisticated notions of the democratic process nowadays than mere majority rule.

It is, at times, hard to get a bead on where Laitin and Reich are coming from. On the one hand, they are critical of the efficacy of bilingual education and on the other seem to deplore the way in which the wealthy in Catalonia are able to purchase private Spanish language educations while the poor are stuck in Catalan-language schools. They are deeply hostile to Stephen May's promotion of minority political rights in terms of power relationships, but I do not see how they expect any linguistic minority to promote its rights in a politicised framework without such advocacy.

I am inclined to attribute to Laitin and Reich a sin worse than the distrust of politics that they attribute to other liberal thinkers: the development of a political theory that serves no purpose but to justify the status quo. They point to Quebec and Spain as places where political negotiation ultimately secured significant language rights, but it does not seem to occur to them that bilingual regimes in schooling and government in the US are also the product of the same kind of political mobilisation.

IV. Accommodation Rights for Hispanics in the United States

Thomas Pogge offers the least universalist perspective on language policy, restricting his arguments to the Spanish language in the United States. He is particularly critical of Will Kymlicka advocacy of minority language rights, and defends a quite resolutely monolingual nationalist policy.

Pogge argues that historical injustices are irrelevant to Spanish language policy, since it is impossible to segregate from the descendants of recent immigrants that part of the Hispanic community descended from those present in the United States at the time that its borders were extended. Second, he makes the baffling claim that linguistic inequality does not entail any sort of injustice as understood by liberals. He supports this claim, as far as I can tell, only with the idea that if Hispanics choose to live among their own, it is by choice and therefore of value to them.

Pogge goes on to offer us a red herring: He raises a strawman argument against teaching English to Spanish-speaking Americans - an unlikely position that he attributes to Kymlicka, but which Kumlicka does not claim in Pogge's quotes. As far as I know, forbidding English education for children in American schools, or even failing to mandate it, is a not position advocated by any mainstream political force. Thus, Pogge's attack on it is quite irrelevant to the actual context of the United States. Had he attempted to generalise his position to Belgium, Switzerland or even Canada, where it has far more bearing on matters, he would have been compelled to generalise his case to a far more complicated context.

To justify monolingual English education, Pogge advances the notion that the best education for children is the education which is best for each child. That's fine, as far as it goes, but there is an enormous gap between this postulate and a policy of English-only education which Pogge makes no effort to bridge. He neither makes empirical claims about what form of education is best for children, nor does he defend himself from the charge that he wants the government to decide in lieu of parents. Given what I presume to be a liberal preference for freedom of choice, this deserves some explanation.

This "English for the children" sort of rhetoric is uncompelling to me. Consider an alternative form of the same argument. In post-9/11 America, it is likely that Muslim children, especially those of more visible and conservative sects, face significant disadvantages in education and employment. They are taunted at school and almost certainly have a harder time getting a job, especially in the sorts of unskilled trades that many immigrants need to survive in a new country. Are we, therefore, for the sake of the children, justified in Christianising them or at least pressing them to adopt a more secular and less visible form of Islam? I should think the liberal answer to be no. Pogge proposes nothing to explain why this is less true of language than of religion.

V. Misconceiving Minority Language Rights: Implications for Liberalism

Stephen May is a sociolinguist who I associate primarily with Maori language issues. In some ways, I am more comfortable with May than the other authors here, because he does not speak the language of Rawlsian liberalism, opting instead of the language of cultural criticism. He is particularly hostile to the explicit monolingual nationalism of Thomas Pogge, and the more hidden form he sees in Laitin and Reich.

First, he is critical of the magic link between the nation-state and the identification of a single official language. There is a reason for that link and May makes no mention of it: the belief that a common citizenship and a common political space is difficult to sustain without a common language. However, May is still on fairly firm ground pointing out that this is a post-facto justification of national monolingualism. The historical foundation of states, especially America, is far less simple.

May also highlights the asymmetry of claims about the importance of reinforcing the dominant language over minority ones. He points to the either/or nature of many language claims as representative of this problem. I, too, noticed how the authors of many of the chapters in this book seem to think that bilingualism is simply impossible, or assume that any bilingualism is simply a step towards assimilation into the dominant language and culture. There is no inherent reason why this should be true. Although May does not make this case, in the era before the modern nation state, whole multilingual communities persisted for generations, and in many place they were the norm, not the exception. Even today, large parts of the Balkans have communities where universal or near-universal bilingualism is the norm, and in the most Anglophilic nations of Europe - the Low Countries and Scandinavia - near universal bilingualism has become a stable situation.

May goes on to criticise the notion that language must define identity as an essentialist and reductionist view - fighting words for the cultural critic. One can be American while still speaking Spanish, Spanish while speaking Catalan and British while still speaking Welsh. He is in my opinion on the right track here. It was once considered unthinkable that one could be Irish without being Catholic, and to claim that to be American requires being Anglophone is just as pernicious a position unless it can be supported by some stronger claim than the presumption that one nation must have just one language.

VI. Linguistic Justice

Philippe van Parijs is, I assume, largely kidding with his contribution to this volume. Deploying the notion of distributive justice, he proposes to use cash to compensate minority language speakers for the effort they must expend in learning the majority language, since he deems this an effort which benefits the majority at a cost to the minority. This resembles Swift's famous proposal for resolving Ireland's overpopulation problems in the 19th century.

However, let us for a moment take van Parijs seriously. This makes some sense in light of the history of van Parijs' native country: Belgium. The history of language politics in Belgium was, until 1989, a history of Dutch speakers learning French, while French speakers saw no particular need to reciprocate since Flemings were largely able to understand and express themselves in French. This persisted even after Dutch-speakers became a majority of the population. Flemish bilingualism was largely beneficial to French-speakers, who were therefore able to expend less effort learning and using a non-native language.

Consider, however, the effect of guaranteeing every Spanish speaker in the US a regular payment from the government. What would this do for Spanish retention rates among Latin American immigrants? It has the distorting effect of making it profitable to retain a native knowledge of Spanish, undermining the very effect so earnestly sought after by integrationist policies. Money has secondary effects, and offering money to Spanish speakers creates a moral hazard for the whole community, discouraging their langauge from behaving as it should by dying off.

VII. Diversity as a paradigm, analytical device and policy goal

François Grin takes a long hard look at the logic and consequences behind support for social diversity and finds them lacking.

One paradox that Grin identifies is the distinction most countries make between "indigenous" minorities and "immigrant" ones. The United Kingdom has more Gujarati speakers than Scots Gaelic speakers, yet Scots Gaelic enjoys some legal status in the UK, while Gujarati has none. The goal of fostering diversity would presumably be just as well served by support for the Gujarati community as for Scots Gaelic.

Grin recognises that our natural sense of justice leads us to grant more support to these "indigenous" communities than to other communities, but asks whether making time the deciding factor in language rights isn't problematic. Where does one draw the line? Spanish, French and German have been spoken in the United States for as long or longer than English. Each predates the founding of the United States by a considerable time. Should support for language rights in the US only include languages spoken before 1492? If so, how does one transplant this decision to the rest of the world? Europe's ethnic distribution is the product of millennia of migration, assimilation and remigration where no magic date separates some previously just distribution from the present. Grin does not have an answer.

VIII. Global Linguistic Diversity, Public Goods, and the Principle of Fairness

Idil Boran is, to me anyway, the most sympathetic author in this volume. She considers arguments in favour of biodiversity to see if they can inform arguments for linguistic diversity. As Boran points out, she is not the first to consider this train of thought. There are a number of similarities between language diversity and biodiversity. The most diverse ecosystems tend to be fairly small, and advocating biodiversity means protecting relatively small territories. In the same way, the world's hundred most common languages are spoken by some 90% of the world's population, while thousands of other languages are spoken by small communities.

Furthermore, the very places with the richest biodiversity also tend to be the places with the richest linguistic diversity. This is not a coincidence. Biodiversity and linguistic diversity are generally greatest in areas that have not been fully colonised by agricultural civilisations. Just as farmers bring with them their own organisms to the detriment of local flora and fauna, they bring with them their languages and tend to liquidate or assimilate less efficient users of fertile land. Biodiversity and linguistic diversity also tend to be greatest in areas that are heavily partitioned by geographical barriers. The same mechanisms that limit the movement of species limit the movement of cultures.

Discourse on biodiversity tends to be centred on the notion of a public good. A public good, in liberal discourse, usually means something which is identified as beneficial to at least most people, but where it is difficult to exclude anyone from enjoying the good if it exists. This undermines voluntarist and market-driven solutions to distributing the good and theorists most often treat the identification of a public good as something which justifies an exception to the liberal predisposition towards freedom of choice.

Boran summarises many of the arguments in favour of viewing linguistic diversity as a public good. First is the argument from aesthetic value so often favoured by classical humanists. Language is not exclusively an instrument of communication. It is also a medium for artistic works. To lose a language means to lose all the arts which are only accessible in that language - its poetry, its literature, its songs, etc. However, she finds this argument weak. There are ample disputes over the recognition of artistic ventures as public goods, and what policy implications this entails. Look, for example, at the constant griping in the US over state funding for controversial artists, like the display of Robert Maplethorpe photos in public museums. Adding language issues to this conflicting mess seems ill-considered.

She is also confronts arguments from scientific value. Although local cultures do contain a variety of useful information about the world - information which is often far less self-evident to occidental scientists - we should not overestimate the value of this knowledge. In my estimate, Boran is right to think this is also a weak argument.

She also identifies an individual's freedom of choice as grounds for supporting language diversity. However, this is difficult to accept at face value. An individual's freedom to live in a particular language is conditioned on access to a substantial community of speakers. This can not be guaranteed in the same manner as an individual freedom to hold particular political views or religious beliefs. The essentially collective nature of language rights makes this entire line of thinking problematic.

Instead, she offers us a principle of fairness which can be interpreted as a more serious effort to apply the logic of just compensation advanced by Philippe van Parijs. If we identify linguistic diversity as a public good, it is appropriate to accept its maintenance as a public cost born by linguistic majorities.

IX. Language Death and Liberal Politics

Michael Blake claims that language rights can only be understood by embracing what he feels is a paradox. He contrasts two hypothetical situations: In the first, a language charges over time until its speakers no longer understand the earlier form of the language; in the second, a language changes over time until it becomes indistinguishable from some other language which was earlier clearly distinct. Is it not appropriate, in both cases, to claim that a language has died? Why then do we object so forcefully to the second case but are unbothered by the first?

Blake's example is a case where a more complete knowledge of linguistics would have been very useful, because while Blake wants us to understand the second to correspond to what happens in unjust language death, what he describes in fact virtually never occurs.

I say "virtually never" because whether it really occurs at all remains the subject of some controversy. In linguistics, this process is called decreolisation, and it is exceedingly rare if it ever actually happens. The study of language contact is complex and somewhat disorganised. There are still vast gaps in our knowledge and plenty of controversy over what happens when languages come into contact. One of the things that can happen is creolisation. This corresponds, in some respects at least, to what Blake is describing.

There is no controversy over the idea that sometimes elements from one language are adopted into another. The current thinking is that this process is pervasive and forms a part of the past and present of nearly every language in the world. The elements that are most frequently and obviously adopted are lexical. Languages borrow words from each other. However, there are ample well-documented instances of morphological and syntactic borrowing as well. The school of linguistics that I more or less adhere to does not even make very sharp distinctions between lexical items, morphological rules and syntactic structures, so for me this poses no difficulties at all.

The problem is the other half of what Blake is claiming: borrowing foreign elements can turn two languages into one. This idea is one of the theories about the origin of Black English. (Also known as African American Vernacular English, but when I call it AAVE, I'm saying that this is a matter for linguists, and if you aren't a linguist you shouldn't be talking about it. When I say "Black English" people are quite clear on what I am talking about. So I stick to "Black English.") The decreolisation hypothesis says that non-standard speech patterns among African Americans came into being because African language patterns persisted among early American slaves, who spoke a creole instead of standard English. In this view, the language of African American communities has been converging with the standard language ever since.

This hypothesis is not highly regarded among linguists. Historical records of slave language in the US do not support this account. Furthermore, arguments from historical reconstruction - claiming that copula dropping in Black English is evidence of African origin because of pervasive copula dropping in Bantu languages - are not convincing. Russian is also a copula dropping language, yet we would not call this fact evidence of the African origin of Russian. Black English appears to have originated as a dialect of colloquial American English which grew away from the standard due to low levels of literacy and segregation.

There are a few other borderline cases. Hawaiian Creole English speakers clearly manipulate a variety of intermediate levels of language between a completely basolectal (= incomprehensible to outsiders) creole and standard English. The same is true to some degree among the Caribbean creoles. However, in each of those cases, the people who speak mesolectal (= may be more comprehensible to outsiders) forms enjoy some mastery of the standard language. It is not clear whether the underlying creole languages are being progressively transformed into the standard language, or if growing bilingualism with the standard language isn't simply creating mesolectal forms among the already bilingual.

Unfortunately, the whole of Blake's argument is built on this base. He demands that before a linguistic right can be established, we must show that the second situation has occurred due to a historical injustice rather than happenstance. He believes that progressive assimilation can occur in an entirely just, voluntary manner. But this process describes no real situation. In every case that might in some way resemble Blake's description, we have a community which has been compelled, by more or less coercive means, to become bilingual in some more dominant language. Without extensive bilingualism in the minority community and unequal access to power, there is never assimilation, and even in cases where there is widespread bilingualism, social inequality and extensive borrowing, there is not always linguistic assimilation.

Blake's core argument - that language death is not always the consequence of coercion so we must look to historical factors in assigning language rights - collapses entirely on this matter of historical record. He might have made the case that either extensive bilingualism or unequal access to power occurs for reasons that are if not just then at least difficult to remedy without creating more injustice. That is that case Jacob Levy makes in the next chapter, and I am far more sympathetic to that kind of claim.

X. Language Rights, Literacy and the Modern State

Jacob Levy, like Blake in the previous chapter, claims that the death of a language can not necessarily be identified with an injustice. Levy, however, uses a somewhat novel approach in making this claim - the costs associated with acquiring literacy. He is correct to say that literacy does not play an important part in discussions of multilingualism. Modern linguistics, which has since the era of de Saussure eschewed literacy as a subject of study, is unfortunately the main culprit. It is part of a general trend in theoretical linguistics - a particularly pronounced one in the era of the structuralists - to ignore any area of language study that might actually prove useful to someone.

Levy recognises, unlike many other commentators on language issues, that multilingualism is a feature of many language communities and claims that a major engine of linguistic assimilation is the cost of becoming literate in multiple languages rather than the cost of becoming conversant in a foreign tongue. I found this claim surprising, because it is quite contrary to most people's experience in learning languages. Developing true verbal fluency - the ability to follow conversations in diverse local accents under noisy conditions using local idioms - is quite a bit more difficult than developing basic literacy in the more standard form of a language.

Then the logic of it came to me. This claim is true for a set of languages. Chinese, Japanese, English and French are the prototype examples of languages where even native speakers have a great deal of difficulty acquiring literacy and second language speakers are still more disadvantaged. Otherwise, this claim is simply false for the overwhelming majority of the world's languages, particularly its smaller and more threatened ones.

Literacy in Inuktitut, which is written using an unusual and moderately complicated writing scheme unique to Canada, spread spontaneously after its introduction by a Methodist missionary in the 19th century. Inuit children, who are hard-pressed to develop fluency and literacy in English, often enter school already literate in their native language. This situation is also common in Africa. Among my father's four native languages was Kituba, a trade language spoken in Bandundu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He developed fluency through exposure as a young child, but became literate in a matter of minutes after he was introduced to its largely phonetic writing scheme.

I do not find arguments from the added burden of literacy terribly convincing. The creation of written forms for languages is not, in fact, usually the realm of "linguistic activists and outside preservationists" as Levy claims. It is in most cases the work of either the state in some guise or of missionaries. Missionary linguistic work nowadays is carried out primarily by an organisation called the Wycliffe Bible Society and its more secular wing, the Summer Institute of Linguistics. One of the most common features of missionary linguists' stories is the speed and ease with which literacy spreads once it has been introduced. It is unheard of for linguistic assimilation to outpace the spread of literacy when a reasonably phonetic writing system is introduced to a community. In many instances, its spread is faster than the missionaries themselves. In the case of Inuktitut, missionaries would sometimes arrive in new villages prepared to teach people how to read only to find that the written language had preceded them, and this in a culture that could only write in the snow because they had no paper.

Levy is on firmer ground when he points out that one of the key advantages of literacy is access to a wider society. Many modern languages were constructed, some more explicitly than others, as unions of diverse dialects. Building a competitive linguistic community is a form of cultural self-defence. However, it is better understood as a sort of compromise measure for linguistic communities. Consider the case of Inuktitut. Although partitioned into a number of partially intercomprehensible dialects, there is a growing degree of standardisation on the phonologically conservative dialect of Iglulik. Although this means that some Inuktitut communities' unique language forms may be lost, this standard Inuktitut is a far better vehicle for their culture and traditions than English. By choosing this strategy, Inuit are accepting the loss of smaller group identities in return for preserving some of what is valuable to them.

Personally, I wish this strategy was more widespread. I know of no comparable movement among Canada's Cree and Montagnais communities, who are numerically superior to the Inuit and who could even more effectively take advantage of a common linguistic strategy. Unfortunately, the political barriers to doing so are much larger for them, since they are divided by two scripts, several churches, two different prefered European languages, and spread across six provinces and one of the territories. However, regardless of its necessity or justice, this phenomenon of language construction by merging dialects is rarely if ever spontaneous. It is, almost without exception, a result of a policy designed to sacrifice some linguistic diversity in return for some good. It is true that it is not in all cases the result of brutally unjust policies imposed from the outside, but it is unlikely to occur unless there is some perceived threat to a language community. Levy's claim that language death through this kind of process is spontaneous is difficult to support.

Levy finally returns to what is the best argument against linguistic diversity and the only one I think actually has enough merit to be worth discussing. Living one's entire life in a language of limited scope is an expensive proposition. It cuts its speakers off from opportunities for personal advancement. Language should not be a prison, and I am largely in agreement with Levy's statement that children should not be tools in the maintenance of unsustainable sociological divisions. However, they have no choice but to be tools in the maintenance of sustainable ones, and distinguishing the lost causes from the viable languages is not an easy task, nor one that the designers of language policies can so easily avoid.

XI. The Antinomy of Language Policy

Daniel Weinstock visits many of the same issues in language policy described at length by previous authors, but goes on to describe a vision of a more just kind of language policy. It is composed of three principles:

  1. Minimalism. The only language dependent goal states should be allowed to pursue is effective communication. Language policies which serve other goals - nation-building, cultural preservation, political unity - are to be rejected.
  2. Anti-symbolism. The selection a particular language by the state should not have a symbolic significance. It would, under Weinstock's principles, be wrong for the United States to declare its official language to be English so that non-English speakers can be identified as Unamerican.
  3. Revisability. The state should be prepared to change its language choices in the face of demographic change. It should be committed to effective communication, and if a change in language policy serves this goal it should be adopted.
Weinstock concedes that this set of policy prescriptions will generally favour the dominant language, but at least it will do so for pragmatic reasons, and without any sudden deprivation of reasonable linguistic rights to communities of any size. I find myself in substantial agreement with Weinstock, although I think there are many cases where these principles do not form an adequate decision procedure for language policy.

I fear that Weinstock's prescriptions, as good as they are, are too little, too late. Had these principles been in place in Canada and the United States since their respective foundings, it is unlikely that either state would have English-speaking majorities today. In the era before mass media and rapid transportation, they would in fact have constituted a relatively just and economically efficient basis for language policy. However, the instrumental value of mass languages today is so great that to imagine that any sort of minimalist language policy can be economically efficient may be an unreasonable assumption.

XII. Beyond Personality: The Territorial and Personality Principles of Language Policy Reconsidered

Denise Réaume contrasts two general classes of language policy and the justifications behind them. The "territorial principle" attaches language rights to particular geographic territories, constructing for each language a place where it can be dominant. Your right to use your language in all parts of your life may be restricted if you are not resident in a territory where your own language is legally established. The "personality principle", in contrast, guarantees language rights without respect to location.

Réaume is right to consider the territorial principle suspect. It is little more than a weak extension of territorial ethno-linguistic nationalism, a principle responsible for more than its fair share of the world's ills. There is nothing special about an existing set of national borders or administrative divisions that makes them worth entrenching as linguistic frontiers. Furthermore, creating these territorial divisions always creates new linguistic minorities by stranding minorities of both languages on the wrong side of the line.

However, she goes a step further, pointing out that a personality principle may justify no more protection for language than any other kind of social division, like religion. Clearly, this is inadequate. Religions can generally be practised individually and privately without losing their value to those who adopt them. Languages can not.

Territorial solutions do have this vexing property of actually working and alternatives often do not, and that is where R?aume finds herself in a pickle. She wants to use the personality principle to advocate radical policies designed to promote minority languages and is hard pressed to do it. Even Canada, champion of the personality principle, has a very different situation on the ground than the Trudeauist vision of coast-to-coast bilingualism. Qu?bec and New Brunswick are the only places in Canada where French is genuinely thriving and they are the only places where the legal code genuinely favours French.

Réaume takes a very Canadian approach to justifying radical minority language support. Language rights are, to her, justified on the basis of collective, rather than individual rights. The constitution of Québec is one of the few in the West to recognise any notion of collective rights by that name and collective rights form the basis of the native claims that are so vexing for Canadian politics right now. However, her argument is subject to the criticisms advanced by Laitin and Reich against collective rights. Réaume will convince no one outside of Canada because her position is so utterly remote from the traditional liberal embrace of individual rights.

XIII. What kind of bilingualism?

Alan Patten picks up many of the same themes as Réaume in the final chapter of the book. He distinguishes a number of arguments for multilingualism and attempts to discern what sort of language regime - territorial or personality based - each tends to favour.

Patten argues that a concern for language rights based on access to public institutions favours the personality principle rather than regionalist language policies. This is not inherently true, because the resources to support bilingualism are not unlimited, and the group which most needs support in accessing public institutions may vary from place to place.

Patten goes on to visit arguments from social mobility, which he deems more likely to favour a territorial principle. Where there are millions of speakers of some language living in close proximity, it is possible to have a reasonably complete set of social institutions in that language, ensuring that members of that language community do not face diminished opportunities. Where a language community has insufficient numbers, there is no prospect of equal opportunity except by acquiring a more dominant language. Therefore, it makes the most sense to promote minority languages where they are viable, and to promote integration elsewhere.

Patten also treats arguments from social cohesion, although he does so under the name "democratic participation." He views this argument as supportive of territoriality, but curiously I am inclined to come to the opposite conclusion. If people do not share a common language, it is even more damaging to their cohesion to segregate them geographically. The difference, I suppose, follows from a different set of assumptions. If you presume linguistic disunity to be the norm no matter how you cut a territory up, you will not support a principle of one state - one language. If you make the opposite assumption, you might well conclude that it is better to have two monolingual states than one bilingual one.

Patten's last argument is from intrinsic identity. To whatever extent language is constitutive of identity, people ought to have the right to the identity they like no matter where they are. This tends to favour a personality-based language policy.

Unlike Réaume, Patten does not come out in favour of unalloyed personality principles in language policy. He finds that arguments from social mobility and social solidarity are good arguments, even if they do not trump the case for the personality principle.

Old Comments

Posted 2003/08/18 16:41 (Mon) | TrackBack