[lg policy] Book review: Language without Rights, Lionel Wee
dave.sayers at CANTAB.NET
Wed Jun 1 20:09:42 UTC 2011
I feel a bit uneasy publicising a predominantly negative review, but
anyway, here it is. Comments welcome...
TITLE: Language without Rights
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
Dr. Dave Sayers, College of Arts & Humanities, Swansea University, UK
Lionel Wee's monograph aims for 'a critical but balanced consideration
of language rights, acknowledging those areas where it has managed to
alleviate [...] linguistic discrimination while also highlighting
various conceptual and practical problems' (p. 4). Intended for
academics but accessible to senior undergraduates, the book foregrounds
a mismatch between the rigidity of group rights and the fluidity of
language, as well as unintended consequences of altering power
relations, and disenfranchisement of less recognised linguistic
minorities -- primarily migrants and speakers of mixed vernaculars. An
alternative to language rights is proposed, based on the theory of
Chapter 1, the introduction, sets out some key distinctions, primarily
between 'language rights' and 'language ownership' -- the former usually
the domain of minority languages and 'interlanguage inequality'; the
latter of majority/wider-usage languages and 'intralanguage inequality'.
Problems are highlighted when rights are assigned to discrete languages
while failing to recognise their internal linguistic diversity. The term
'language rights' is used throughout the book to refer to areas of
research and activism that pursue rights for whole languages.
Chapter 2, 'On Boundary Marking', problematises essentialist tendencies
in language rights, and the effect of privileging certain minorities
over others -- since not all minorities can practicably be treated
equally. The chapter expands on three limiting effects identified by the
rights discourse: 'selectivity' (choosing a specific linguistic code for
a specific group); 'reinvention' (rationalisation and alteration to fit
bureaucratic models of rights); and 'neutralisation' (after rights have
been afforded, sidelining marginal speakers not recognised within the
group). To illustrate these, data are reviewed from Singapore, South
Africa and Sri Lanka.
Chapter 3, 'Language and Ethnic Minority Rights', adopts from Stephen
May a division of language rights into three 'movements': 'Language
Ecology' (promoting languages as intrinsically important, making links
with biodiversity); 'Linguistic Human Rights' (mother tongue access is
an inalienable right, its denial is cultural genocide); and 'Minority
Language Rights' (reaching beyond languages for a synthesis with liberal
democracy). The first two are noted for their inapplicability to more
general human rights, in terms of freedoms. The third is then explored
and some of its problems identified, particularly in accepting free
abandonment of minority languages (p. 68) and intralanguage inequality
Chapter 4, 'Beyond Ethnic Minorities', concerns intralanguage
inequality. It explores Singlish -- or Singaporean English -- and
Ebonics -- or African American Vernacular English, arguing that
intralanguage and interlanguage discrimination should receive more equal
attention. The chapter goes on to review language usage differing
between cultures, including 'literacy practices' (ways of engaging with
texts) and 'discourse styles' (ways of describing oneself or interacting
with others) that unequally equip people for school and work, and how
such unequal preparation constitutes is a form of linguistic inequality.
Language rights, again, are criticised for eliding these issues.
Chapter 5, 'Ethnic Diversity and Nationalism', considers three case
studies: Sri Lanka; Malaysia; and Singapore. These are described
respectively as very, quite, and not very concerned with the discourse
of language rights. The chapter argues that 'the focus on language
rights tends to work against the [...] shared sense of community, and
instead encourages social fragmentation along ethnic lines' (p. 96). In
the case of Singapore, it is argued that language rights have been
carefully eschewed in order to forestall claims from groups who see
English as their mother tongue (which the state considers unacceptable).
Singapore's language policies are claimed to have succeeded in
curtailing interethnic tensions. Malaysia and Sri Lanka are described as
failing by comparison, on account of their palpably greater ethnic unrest.
Chapter 6, 'Migration and Global Mobility', highlights the blindness of
language rights to non-citizens, given the tendency towards
territorially defined ethnic groups with associated 'heritage' languages
(linked to multigenerational land tenure). The thrust of the chapter is
to move 'toward language rights in a broader sense of the communicative
right of individuals to be heard and understood' (p. 128).
Chapter 7, 'Language Education and Communication in the Workplace',
turns the critique towards 'heritage education' in relation to the
labour market. It is argued that promoting heritage languages is too
rigid, and should engage more with fluid identities and inter-cultural
comparisons. The chapter's main point, and an undercurrent of the book
as a whole, is summarised in the following passage (p. 152):
'[i]n many societies today, a language of wider communication (LWC) such
as English is needed for social mobility. [...] [T]he answer [...] does
not lie in trying to boost the status of a minority language, since this
would rely on a long-term significant overhaul of current economic
social structures [...]. Rather, a more reasonable response lies in
trying to widen access to the LWC in ways that underscore the
performative nature of language and its potential as a semiotic resource.'
Upon review of work on different cases of English language teaching, it
is argued that the LWC -- and a sociolinguistically informed,
non-rote-based education therein -- best equips people for contemporary
employment. This in turn reprises the overarching critique that language
rights cannot 'present realistic options for engaging the connection
between education and preparation for [...] the workplace' (p. 161).
Chapter 8, 'Language, Justice, and the Deliberative Democratic Way',
presents an 'alternative approach' (p. 163) grounded in the theory of
deliberative democracy. The cornerstone of this theory is not to base
democratic representation on snapshot opinions, but to urge reflexivity
and debate, encouraging a dynamic landscape of public values more
amenable to something as fluid as language. The chapter applies two
aspects of deliberative democracy to language rights: deliberative
polling; and reform of civic education.
Chapter 9 sums up some key themes, reiterates criticisms of language
rights, explores further case studies for comparison, and offers
The book has desirable intentions to explore practical and moral
problems in language rights, but suffers from considerable
inconsistencies and oversimplifications, which significantly lessen its
Chapters 1 and 2 begin the critical discussion about assigning rights to
groups based on language. There are points of clarity but much
repetition of existing ideas (often unreferenced), while a number of
highly relevant authors are not mentioned at all, such as Kenneth McRae
(1975), Florian Coulmas (e.g. 1998), John Myhill (1999), David Atkinson
(e.g. 2000), and Sue Wright (e.g. 2007) (McRae's and Myhill's
'territoriality' and 'personality' principles are later dismissed
without citation on p. 126). Chapter 2 asserts adroitly that language is
too fluid for the rigidities of rights discourses, but bypasses swathes
of variationist sociolinguistic work that could have significantly
bolstered this point. Overall, the bibliography lacks many important
contributions and is generally quite out-dated, noticeably tailing off
after 2007. Together these shortcomings are especially problematic for a
book aiming to drive debate forward.
Chapter 3's threefold division of language rights is useful as a basic
introduction to the field, but is based on some quite isolated citations
mostly from around 10-15 years ago. There are certainly logical,
practical and moral shortcomings that remain in these 'movements', but
the criticisms offered have been made before, and argued back and forth
in academic journals. Meanwhile, important nuances and new developments
in the field are not mentioned. For example in the second of the three
movements, Alexandra Jaffe's (2007) work in Corsica is cited as an
example of language essentialism creating new prejudices, but this
misses her more recent work there (as reported in Jaffe 2010) showing
innovative school materials encouraging creativity, and legitimating
language variability. This chapter sets up the premises for the rest of
the book’s arguments, but the premises are incomplete, and the arguments
In Chapter 4, the generalisations of 'language rights' become more
conspicuous: 'because [language] rights advocates have traditionally
focussed on ethnic minority languages, [...] their cases of concern
typically involve speakers who may be relatively unified in rallying
around their dominated language against a more dominant one. But [...]
in intralanguage discrimination, unity is much less likely' (p. 76).
Perhaps this is meant as a signpost back to similar points in Chapter 2,
but those too were notably reductive. Cumulatively these generalisations
come across as a somewhat overbearingly exhortative campaign to deride
The generalisations also lead to some faulty assertions and mismatches.
Chapter 4 claims that language rights activists are hypocritical in
denying Singlish or Ebonics the importance they afford to heritage
languages. Maybe, but this overlooks a key difference: endangerment.
Singlish and Ebonics are thriving vernaculars, so there are bound to be
differences in normative emphasis from endangered languages. A further
criticism is that education is prioritised by rights advocates for
heritage languages, but not by anybody for Ebonics or Singlish. This is
similarly flawed. Reliance on education is not always a predetermined
preference. Again it has to do with endangerment, and education being
seen (rightly or wrongly) as a means to create new speakers. Given these
mismatches, the purpose of the argument here becomes increasingly
indistinct, other than to continue haranguing (an over-generalised
portrayal of) language rights.
Elsewhere, the author gives attention to the theme of endangerment.
Chapter 5 notes that Malay is seen as needing protection from English,
but that it is not endangered (p. 110). This tacitly recognises
endangerment in the language rights discourse, but it comes too late for
Chapter 4. There are useful assertions in Chapter 4: that institutional
usage can negatively transform community languages and wash out their
social meaning; and that there should be less focus on languages as such
and more separate attention to rights. However, these are all but lost
amid all the loose ends.
Chapter 5 uses Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore to claim that pursuing
language rights causes ethnic unrest, not just there, but generally.
This is a questionable piece of inductive reasoning for such a limited
sample. A sense continues to grow that generalisations are arrived at
too quickly, and lack balance or rigour.
Chapter 6 begins to make headway in highlighting the plight of asylum
seekers and other non-citizens. This is a novel and important angle to
explore, but the chapter is excessively anecdotal, and themes are not
well drawn out even from these isolated accounts. This chapter, like
those before, is also very out-dated, for example the discussion of
refugee education (pp. 133-134) mainly relies on research from the 1980s
and early 1990s. Furthermore, policy inadequacies -- although maligned
-- are not actually explained, for example through limitations of
funding and staffing. The chapter begins to develop some normative
stances, but -- mostly due to not understanding the causes of the
problem -- these solutions are very vague. Meanwhile the sweeping
characterisations of language rights continue: 'the notion of language
rights [...] would call [...] for a [...] vocal and aggressive
championing of one specific variety over another' (p. 119). This claim
does apply in some cases, but making such swift generalisations only
sets up easy counter-arguments, which will slow down the debate more
than aid progress.
In Chapters 6 and 7, a main critique is that the pursuit of language
rights based on ethnic identities does little to help migrants to be
understood and gain marketable linguistic skills. These are important
points, but there is such relentless focus on the divergences of these
pursuits as to imply they are mutually exclusive. Again the censure of
language rights is overdone, undermining another useful advance with
A further significant omission throughout the book is the growth of
recruitment as a function of contemporary language planning. Welsh in
Wales and Catalan in Catalonia are given as examples of 'home language'
or 'mother tongue' usage in education (p. 84), but in fact, a major
effort in these cases is to propagate Welsh and Catalan as a second
language among children and adults, regardless of ethnicity or
nationality, and often in areas where native speakers are few (see e.g.
Coupland et al. 2006:352; Boix-Fuster & Sanz 2008). Such propagation is
more about bolstering languages than empowering ethnic groups. It is
therefore difficult to maintain that 'a language right is typically
oriented toward the protection of an inherited ethnic identity' (p.
145), or that 'language rights advocates mistakenly assume that speakers
will necessarily rally around an identified denotational code' (p. 193).
The move towards recruitment demonstrates that such rallying is often
not presumed; quite the opposite. Had it been considered, this turn to
recruitment (and its primary focus on sheer numbers of speakers) could
actually have supported the book's argument about the contrast between
promoting languages and helping people; but this potential insight ends
up another victim of an excessively binary argument.
Another unrecognised element of contemporary language planning is where
minority languages are favoured over majority languages for education
and commerce, leading to alternative economies (e.g. Ramanathan 2005;
Trudell 2009). Again, this could have supported the book's argument that
language should primarily be a tool of personal empowerment, but such
distinctions are lost amid increasingly resolute derision of ethnic
Chapter 8 turns fully to normative proposals, attempting to recast
language rights using the theory of deliberative democracy. The main aim
of this 'alternative approach' is political: getting speakers of all
languages to assess language issues not just from this or that value
position, but from their own personal standpoint, and to constantly
reassess these issues to reflect changing conditions. The chapter falls
down, however, in some fundamental ways. Firstly the proposals are
discouragingly complex for such large-scale debate, yet backed up with
scant detail of actual implementation. It remains unclear how to
'provide and cultivate the kind of social environment that allows
individuals to reflect on their cultural identities and facilitate
changes to these identities where possible' (p. 170). The goal is
laudable, but its practical application is not even rudimentarily
explored. Moreover the theory is premised tentatively on the universal
desire of people to get along -- a belief that is rhetorically defended
but not actually substantiated (p. 171). There is an acknowledgement in
a footnote on p. 173 that some stubborn people may abandon such a
process, but no exploration of how this abandonment could be
accommodated, or indeed what would happen if most people abandoned it.
For an argument about inclusive policymaking, that footnote is something
of a dead end.
Chapter 8's subsequent section, 'Possible Institutional Designs',
continues to be elliptically nonspecific: 'multiple public forums are
encouraged, some of which may be highly institutionalised while others
may be more informal in nature' (p. 171); and 'some forums might be
organised to take place on specific occasions while others may occur
more spontaneously' (p. 172). There are no practical applications or
working examples, only abstract discussions of what 'we might expect'
(p. 175) from such a process. An abundance of 'could', 'might' and
'should' in the chapter adds no confidence. At a more general level,
Chapter 8 wrestles with an internal conflict: on the one hand it
advances a determined (if underdeveloped) vision of how things should
be, for example in education, while on the other, it champions people
power and superior faithfulness to public opinions. One cannot be both
so determined and so submissive. The failure to accommodate malcontents
-- signalled in the footnote on p. 173 -- tacitly acknowledges this
tangle. There are very occasional hints that authorial opinions are as
much a guide as anything else, e.g. '[t]he kind of group rights I am
willing to recognize' (p. 196).
Setting aside the incomplete arguments, Chapter 8 squanders two
potentially strong and important arguments which had seemed to be
evolving up to this point. First, the proposal on 'deliberative polling'
is limited to discussing 'citizens'. Having spent so long discussing the
plight of non-citizens, it is perplexing that the solution in the end
should ignore them. Even if it had been the intention to mention
non-citizens, it is unclear how they would be fairly included in such
forums, given that logistics had been so entirely glided over. Second,
Chapter 8 contains a number of quixotic suggestions about retooling
education for 'nurturing cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity. [...]
Students can be asked for their pre- and postdeliberative opinions,
mediated by exposure to experts on a relevant topic, supplemented by
their own research as well as discussion amongst themselves' (p. 175).
This ignores the book's earlier argument -- and an entirely intuitive
point -- that education is full of inequalities, so any such programmes
will have unequal reach. That is not to mention the persistent numbers
of disenfranchised students and permanent absentees, in even the
wealthiest countries, who will miss this entirely. If the rest of
society were somehow elevated to a new plane of deliberative harmony,
then what about these already socially excluded individuals? Would they
join the stubborn malcontents in p. 173's footnote? Other suggestions
about augmenting language education with an emphasis on complexity,
variation, and change, are equally adrift of detail -- only one brief
hypothetical exercise contrasting Singlish and American English (pp.
180-181). The chapter is a major anti-climax; it fails to bring together
potentially useful points built up previously in the book, neglects
exactly the people it previously identified as being excluded, and
invokes an all too popular we-should-teach-this-in-schools mentality,
with typically shallow explanations of how that would actually produce
the desired effects.
Chapter 9 approaches the task of gathering together conclusions, but
continues with further over-generalisations of language rights, while
also flitting briefly between newly introduced case studies, including
Nepal (pp.191-193) and France (pp.194-196). These, it turns out (p.
196), are intended as a comparison to the misfires of language rights.
The chapter mostly feels like a collection of ideas that did not fit
elsewhere, and does little to draw together the book’s assertions.
Ultimately there is an important redeemable theoretical advance in the
book, that language rights should concentrate finer attention to
individuals and their capabilities, not just discrete groups and languages:
'[T]he communicative needs of immigrants cannot be appropriately
addressed by appealing to language rights, if these are understood as
the collective right of an ethnic minority group to a heritage language.
[...] In this regard, the traditional notion of language rights will
need to be recast as an individual's communicative right to be heard and
understood [...].' (p. 143)
It may be unviable to 'recast' rights insofar as transforming from A to
B, as this would mean an end to policies aiming to grow language groups
– for example in Wales or Catalonia, where the book does not recognise
that growth imperative. (This unviability is actually touched on
momentarily on p. 161, but then left alone.) A workable suggestion might
be to fork two separate terms that better represent diverging
priorities: perhaps 'individual communicative rights' and 'group
language rights'. It even feels as if this distinction might be
articulated in the concluding chapter, but it seems eclipsed by the
enduring and unedifying desire to do away with group rights altogether.
Overall, the book contains some important criticisms and useful ideas,
but remains significantly underdeveloped. It could have been limited to
describing inadequacies in policy without straying into the normative,
or could have proceeded more fully to sketch out workable alternatives.
Its current state in between the two seems misaligned, while a recurrent
polemical tone only hinders constructive debate. Hopefully the book will
spur more targeted critical thinking in this important area, but in and
of itself, 'Language without Rights' feels like something of a missed
Atkinson, D. 2000. Minoritisation, Identity and Ethnolinguistic Vitality
in Catalonia. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development
Boix-Fuster, Emili & Cristina Sanz. 2008. Language and identity in
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and identity: Spanish at the crossroads with other languages, Amsterdam:
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Coulmas, Florian. 1998. Language Rights: Interests of State, Language
Groups and the Individual. Language Sciences 20(1): 63-72.
Coupland, Nikolas, Hywel Bishop, Betsy Evans & Peter Garrett. 2006.
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and Demographic Flow. Journal of Language & Social Psychology 25(4):
Jaffe, Alexandra. 2007. Discourses of endangerment: contexts and
consequences of essentializing discourses. In Alexandre Duchêne & Monica
Heller (eds.), Discourses of endangerment: interest and ideology in the
defense of languages, London: Continuum (pp.57-75).
Jaffe, Alexandra. 2010. Linguistic creativity across sites of practice:
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to Sociolinguistic Symposium 18, University of Southampton, UK.
McRae, Kenneth D. 1975. The principle of territoriality and the
principle of personality in multilingual states. International Journal
of the Sociology of Language 4: 33-54.
Myhill, John. 1999. Identity, Territoriality and Minority Language
Survival. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 20(1):
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the Ground Up: Refashioning Institutional Realities and Human Lives.
Current Issues in Language Planning 6(2): 89-101.
Trudell, Barbara. 2009. Local-language literacy and sustainable
development in Africa. International Journal of Educational Development
Wright, Sue. 2007. The Right to Speak One's Own Language: Reflections on
Theory and Practice. Language Policy 6(2): 203-224.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Dr. Dave Sayers is an Honorary Research Fellow of the College of Arts &
Humanities at Swansea University, UK. His research is on language policy
and planning, and sociolinguistics.
Dr. Dave Sayers
Honorary Research Fellow
College of Arts & Humanities
and Language Research Centre
dave.sayers at cantab.net
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