AUTHOR: Wee, Lionel 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 conclusions.
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 opportunity.
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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).
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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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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.