[lg policy] book review: Language Rights and Political Theory

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed May 5 14:51:19 UTC 2010

SIL Electronic Book Reviews 2010-006
URL: http://www.sil.org/silebr/2010/silebr2010-006

Language Rights and Political Theory
Edited by Will Kymlicka and Alan Patten

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. 368. hardback $140.00,
paperback $50.00. ISBN 978-0-19-926290-8 (hardback), 0-19-926290-X
(hardback), 978-0-19-926291-5 (paperback), 0-19-926291-8 (paperback).

Reviewed by Joan Bomberger Yoder
SIL International


This collection of essays developed from a workshop on language rights
which was held at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario in 2001. Its
aim is to explore “how political theorists can conceptualize issues of
language rights and contribute to public debates on language policy”
(2). This review will highlight main themes and provide brief chapter
summaries, particularly noting topics of interest for minority
language advocates and workers. An excellent summary of the book’s
issues can also be found in a review by Rory O’Connel in Law and
Politics Book Review, volume 14, number 8.

Major Themes

One way of viewing language rights concerns personality versus
territoriality rights regimes. The latter promotes individuals’
language rights no matter where the speaker is located, whereas the
former favors a regional and more homogenous policy based on “where
numbers warrant.” Another pairing addresses whether language rights
are individual or collective, group-based rights. Two other
distinctions are tolerance (negative freedom) versus
promotion-oriented rights and norm-and-accommodation rights versus
official-language rights regimes, which contrasts a policy of one
official language with one that equally privileges multiple languages

Recurrent questions include how should costs for minority language
development and majority language learning be shared? Should language
policy for immigrants and nationals be considered differently? From
the perspective of justice, does the way a language has been
marginalized or lost make a difference (i.e. through suffering an
injustice or as a natural trend of language assimilation). A view of
democracy as a participatory activity also makes policy demands, as
language skills are required not just for voting, but also for the
deliberative processes of discussion and debate.

Two common approaches are considered superficial and unviable. The
traditional liberal position of “benign neglect,” often linked with
the negative freedom of tolerance, is not an option, as government
cannot remain neutral but must require language to function. As
Rubio-Marín states, “Law is a linguistic creature” (79). Another
non-option is one often embraced by minority language specialists.
Linguistic human rights is mostly rejected here as a one-size-fits-all
universal standard which fails to address the unique needs and
complexities of each situation. A view of language as a public good is
also proposed in several discussions as a stronger starting point than
a “rights argument.”

Of special interest to minority language workers is the negative view
of multilingual education held by a number of the contributors with
regards to its benefits, feasibility, and costs. Another perspective
at variance with minority language advocacy is the view that a
promotional approach to minority language can be illiberal by imposing
the right of a language on individuals in a community who may prefer
instead to “move on” to a majority language.

Content Summary
Patten and Kymlicka note in chapter 1 that an emphasis on linguistic
diversity has come late to the widespread discussion among political
theorists on diversty issues. Their lengthy introduction contains
seven sections:

the new interest in language rights;
issues needing addressed by a theory of language policy;
key distinctions in theorizing such rights;
the inadequacy of “benign neglect” and “linguistic human rights”;
shortcomings of the two normative models of “nation building” and
“language preservation,” and
      (sections 5 and 6 are combined)
procedural approaches (2).
The editors favor political processes for resolving issues, stating
that various approaches and ideologies are insufficient for addressing
policy concerns.

In chapter 2, “Language Rights: Exploring the Competing Rationales,”
Ruth Rubio-Marín notes that while language rights has received little
theoretical reflection, the traditional liberal position of tolerance
as non-intervention does not work. The law and socio-economic
well-being require communication. Thus the central tension: political
legitimacy demands a common language, and this demand privileges a

In place of the classification of tolerance versus promotion-oriented
rights, Rubio-Marin favors the concept of instrumental versus
non-instrumental rights. This approach values language enjoyment and
survival while including as instrumental the right/duty to learn a
dominant language in order to fulfill needs for communication,
participation, and opportunity. Non-instrumental rights in particular
are “always group rights” (57).

In chapter 3, “A Liberal Democratic Approach to Language Justice,”
David Laitin and Rob Reich favor a resolution of policy issues by the
give-and-take negotiations of democratic processes. While the liberal
tradition has neglected language justice, the presence of linguistic
diversity in most states requires a language policy. Liberalism also
needs to offer those who prefer assimilation the freedom to choose the
majority language. Laitin and Reich’s position on multilingual
education is evident as they ask why parents would “expend resources”
to “lower the communicative range of their children.” In their view,
the promotion of mother tongue at the children’s expense exacerbates
injustice (84).

Using the example of the 35 million U.S. citizens who have Spanish as
their mother tongue, Thomas Pogge (chapter 4: “Accommodation Rights
for Hispanics in the U.S.”) states that the best interests of children
trump language protection or promotion issues, and that an English
First policy (though not English Only), best serves their interests.
He allows for various types of transition programs, but is concerned
about the moral costs of accomodation rights, which can favor one
language unfairly at the expense of other languages.

Well-known minority language advocate Stephen May plunges into sharp
debate with Pogge and others in chapter 5, “Misconceiving Minority
Language Rights — Implications for Liberal Political Theory.” He
briskly confronts his opponents’ “misconceptions,”
“misrepresentations,” and “nonsense,” refuting as “flawed” research
which denies bilingual education’s benefits. While strongly defending
minority language education as a public good, he acknowledges that an
“appropriate and reasonable” policy is one “where numbers warrant”

Philippe Van Parijs (chapter 6, “Linguistic Justice,” addresses the
practical issue of cost sharing. The viability of a language policy is
determined through calculating the net benefit via the equation gross
benefit – gross cost. The question then follows of how to distribute
the costs and benefits. In an attempt to reconcile linguistic justice
and efficiency, he notes that a fair solution can be inefficient,
while an efficient solution can be unfair. Some resolution is possible
by selecting the most widespread language and organizing transfer with
cost sharing or learning.

François Grin (chapter 7, “Diversity as Paradigm, Analytical Device,
and Policy Goal”) states that while diversity cannot be considered a
right, it is a good which merits an appropriate policy goal, one which
balances costs and benefits. Grin’s “Diversity Clover” (175)
illustrates how various disciplines use different terminology, leading
to fragmentation of dialogue and reinventing the wheel. For example,
in North and South America, Africa, and Australasia, disciplines such
as anthropology and ethnology use the term “indigenous peoples.” In
Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, various political science
fields speak of “national minorities and minority rights.” Grin calls
for disciplines concerned with diversity to integrate and bring unity
to a discussion which has been fragmented and insular.

Boran’s article in chapter 8, “Global Linguistic Diversity, Public
Goods, and the Principle of Fairness,” states that language meets the
criteria of a public good, in which the value is great enough to
justify obligations. He states that Levy (chapter 10) erroneously
equates value with usefulness, thereby ignoring the aesthetic,
non-instrumental value of language. Boran appeals to the liberal value
of choice while noting that fairness in cost sharing needs
consideration. The tools of environmental ethics and social justice
are useful, and a final point is that language preservation should not
be imposed on people so that they are marginalized against their will.

Michael Blake, in “Language Death and Liberal Politics” (chapter 9),
is concerned with the how and why of language death. Language loss is
not always evil, but becomes a concern for liberal justice when change
occurs due to domination and discrimination. Blake is restrictive as
to when a government is obliged to act in a protective or promotional
way. If no injustice exists, then an appropriate approach to policy
formulation is one of language as a good to be pursued through the
processes of democratic deliberation.

In chapter 10, “Language Rights, Literacy, and the Modern State,”
Jacob Levy argues against languages as an assumed good. In contrast,
he believes that language preservation policies can be coercive and
not in the best interests of a community and its children. A startling
point for minority language workers is his view that literacy can lead
to language death, since it raises the cost of learning a language.
For Levy, mother-tongue literacy appears to be a lost battle. By the
time a language has been developed through the production of a
dictionary, some stories, and a few translated outside texts, “a
generation of children may have grown up reading another language”
(237). A government, however, may rightly accommodate those who may
not be expected to learn the majority language, and Levy acknowledges
the need for fairness as opposed to unjust “nationalizing projects”

David Weinstock states in chapter 11, “The Antinomy of Language
Policy,” that non-instrumental intrinsic values should not trump
instrumental concerns. Like Levy, he believes that language
preservation policies can be coercive and paternalistic, with cultures
and languages claiming rights that may trump their individual members’

A just language policy neither utilizes benign neglect nor language
preservation but espouses no more government interference than is
necessary to ensure communication, while seeking a balance between
costs and benefits. Weinstock sees communication needs as more
important than non-instrumental claims and believes that majority
languages may be legitimately favored for practical reasons. However,
he concedes that there are “good reasons for some minority language
rights” (249).

Chapter 12, “Beyond Personality: The Territorial and Personal
Principles of Language Policy Reconsidered,” by Denise Réaume, notes
that language use determined by territory favors unilingualism, while
the personality principle favors bilingualism and language protection.
Réaume proposes an alternative in which language rights is linked to
the existence of viable language communities, rather than individuals.
This allows for elements of both principles, as a community focus
gives some weight to the territorial argument, and provides space for
instrumental and non-instrumental values.

In Chapter 13, “What Kind of Bilingualism? ,” Alan Patten, like
Réaume, shifts the argument from the personality versus territoriality
principle to another option. He discusses the conditions under which
each may be preferred. When asking a minority group to adjust to
majority language usage, key factors include the need for a just
policy and reasonableness. Choice is also informed by important
interests such as “public access,” “social mobility,” “democratic
participation,” and “identity” (299).

Evaluation and implications
A review of this length cannot fully capture the book’s scope and
complexity, nor adequately portray its lively cross-current of
discussion and debate. The language of political and legal theory can
make a challenging read for those schooled in other disciplines, but
the wide range of thoughtful presentations makes it worth the effort.
Since the book was published in 2003, an Internet search using terms
such as “language policy,” “multilingualism,” “multilingual and
bilingual education,” and “language rights” will reveal scholarship,
policy formation, and discussion which has continued to develop since
that time.

Those concerned with minority language development could be
discouraged and even threatened by this volume. They shouldn’t be.
Promoting healthy debate, avoiding a one-size-fits-all rhetorical
stance, and acknowledging the need for practical solutions provide a
refreshing perspective. The process of public policy making is messy,
but human affairs aren’t readily coaxed into neat boxes. Couching the
debate in terms of benefits and justice make sense. For those who
disagree with the low value placed on minority languages and
multilingual education, this is a call to contribute credible debate
and data to the ongoing discourse.

O'Connell, Rory, Book Review of Kymlicka and Patten, Language Rights
and Political Theory. Law and Politics Book Review, Vol. 14, No. 8,
pp. 630–633, 2004. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1117590


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