[lg policy] Book review: Language without Rights, Lionel Wee

Dave Sayers 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
DATE: 2010

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 
deliberative democracy.

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 
(p. 72).

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 
overall merit.

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 
suffer accordingly.

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 
language rights.

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 
excessive derogation.

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 
heritage languages.

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 
21(3): 185-197.

Boix-Fuster, Emili & Cristina Sanz. 2008. Language and identity in 
Catalonia. In Mercedes Niño-Murcia & Jason Rothman (eds.), Bilingualism 
and identity: Spanish at the crossroads with other languages, Amsterdam: 
John Benjamins (pp.87-106).

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. 
Imagining Wales and the Welsh Language: Ethnolinguistic Subjectivities 
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: 
Italian and Corsican in tourist and educational contexts. Presentation 
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): 

Ramanathan, Vaidehi. 2005. Rethinking Language Planning and Policy from 
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 
29: 73-79.

Wright, Sue. 2007. The Right to Speak One's Own Language: Reflections on 
Theory and Practice. Language Policy 6(2): 203-224.


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
Swansea University
dave.sayers at cantab.net

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