LINGUIST List 11.1415

Sun Jun 25 2000

Review: Skutnabb-Kangas: Linguistic Genocide

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  • Kathleen Tacelosky, book review

    Message 1: book review

    Date: Sat, 24 Jun 2000 10:54:11 -0400
    From: Kathleen Tacelosky <>
    Subject: book review

    Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. (2000) Linguistic Genocide in Education Or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 785 pages. paperback US$55.00

    Reviewed by: Kathleen Tacelosky, William Jewell College

    The number of languages in the world is decreasing. This is no accident, neither is it the natural course of events, rather it is a result of decisions made by people in power who wish to remain there. Language education in which minority languages are involved is designed in such a way that the usual result is monolingualism or dominance in one language eventually resulting in a lack of use, or extinction, of the original tongue. Just as physical genocide occurs when people are systematically killed off, so linguistic genocide occurs when languages are systematically killed. This issue is addressed in meticulous detail in the book under review.

    Drawing on 'lifetime of experience' (p. xvi), this book is Skutnabb-Kangas' magnum opus. It is divided into three main sections, and in addition to having very detailed outlines at the beginning of each chapter, it includes various types of boxes: Definition Boxes, Address Boxes, Reader Task Boxes, Info Boxes, and Inserts.

    Part I: Setting the Scene

    Chapter 1, 'What is Happening to the Languages of the World,' begins by attempting to identify what is meant by 'language,' acknowledging that the task of defining is not easy. Next, a compelling argument, with numerous examples, is made of the lack of general knowledge about languages -- from the number and size of languages in the world, to the names of languages and where they are spoken. The state of languages in terms of extinction and endangerment is also addressed. Boxes include a multiple choice exercise on which country one would likely hear a given language in (p. 18-19) and there is a table of the countries with the most languages (p.34).

    Chapter 2 covers, as the title indicates, the 'Connections between Biodiversity and Linguistic and Cultural Diversity.' After defining biological and linguistic diversity (cultural diversity is defined in chapter 3 on p.116), data concerning species diversity and language diversity are compared. Skutnabb-Kangas demonstrates that, although the threat to biodiversity is great, that to language diversity is far greater. The positive correlation between linguistic diversity and biodiversity is explained, and the following characteristics which contribute to a high levels of both are given: 'highly varied terrain, climate, and ecosystems, ^�island countries ^�and tropical countries' (p. 88) In the conclusion of the chapter, the author makes a case, not only for a correlation between linguistic and cultural diversity and biodiversity, but for causality, albeit indirect.

    Chapter 3, 'Mother Tongue(s), Culture, Ethnicity and Self-Determination', begins by tackling the question of how to define 'mother tongue.' Skutnabb-Kangas' criteria include 'origin, identification, competence, and function' (p. 106), and she includes in the discussion the degree of human rights awareness. Culture and cultural diversity are defined and discussed in light of assimilation and integration. In the discussion of language, and particularly mother tongue and identity, the author examines identifications of Self and Other including racist and sexist classifications of 'white' and male as the unmarked Self and 'black' and female as the stigmatized Other. (So-called color classifications are in quotes because they do not denote the color of anybody's skin. Later in the chapter, section, the author suggests that a better label for 'white' people might be 'pig-pink,' not only because it is more accurate, but because it might create a connotation that approximates the one that is associated by many when they hear and use 'black' for people. ) The positive and negative implications of extending the hierarchical distinction to language, dialect, vernacular, patois are explored. Exo- definitions (those imposed by others) are contrasted with endo- definitions (those determined by self).

    Chapter 4, 'Linguistic Diversity-Curse or Blessing/ To Be Maintained or Not? Why?,' begins by interpreting what the creation stories in the Bible, the Qur'an and other traditional texts say about the origins of linguistic diversity and continues by exploring the potential 'ends' of languages in terms of extinction. Though there are some parallels with biodiversity and 'natural' development of species and languages can be compared, the author argues that at certain points the comparisons break down, not the least of which is in the realm of extinction. Here she maintains her stance that terms like 'language attrition' and 'language death' imply a natural order whereas 'linguistic genocide' more aptly describes the extermination of languages that is occurring. As examples of 'double agents' who at once promote and destroy 'linguodiveristy,' she points to missionaries; invisibilisers (those who deny the existence of languages, and here sign languages are singled out as historically overlooked even among linguists when counting the number of languages); triumphalists (linguistic Darwinist types who claim that widely spoken languages, most notably English, are powerful and better suited for international communication); and researchers. Further, myths that assert the value of monolingualism are critiqued and challenged. The chapter concludes with arguments for and against linguistic diversity.

    Part II: Linguistic Genocide, State Policies, and Globalisation

    Chapter 5, 'State Policies Towards Languages -- Linguistic Genocide, Language Death, or Support for Languages?,' gives the range of possible policies that a state might take from 'attempting to kill a language' to 'adoption as an official language.' In section 5.2 the issue of linguistic genocide, touched upon in previous chapters, is undertaken directly. The UN definition is given and the reader is invited to contemplate personal reactions to the terminology. A brief account of the systems of minority education, replete with examples from around the world of punishments and rewards for speaking a particular language, is presented including the ideology undergirding educational practices. Finally, the author offers a comprehensive justification of the 'language genocide paradigm' arguing that it is essential to incorporate agents and causality and counter explanations that claim a 'natural' course of events.

    In Chapter 6, 'Globalisation, Power and Control', the author positions minority education in the world in terms of society and politics. Disproportionate distribution of power, not only in terms of dominant and dominated languages, but also as pertains to race, sex, class and other '-isms' is explored. The question of whether many languages divide or unite a state is addressed, and the author dismantles claims that 'in order to form a nation or a state you have to have a language' (p. 426.) The last section, 6.3 addresses issues of globalisation and ideological and cultural power brokers such as the World Bank, IMF, and McDonalds (not only directly, but as 'McDonaldization' - a global marketing strategy for exporting not just food, but a way of life [p. 456 has a definition]) and discusses the place of language in the power structure.

    Part III: Struggle Against Linguistic Genocide and for Linguistic Human Rights in Education

    In Chapter 7, 'Linguistic Human Rights,' Skutnabb-Kangas introduces the concept (drawing on her book of the same name edited with Robert Phillipson, 1994.) Distinguished from language rights, which are more far-reaching, Linguistic Human Rights (LHRs) are ones that incorporate basic human rights and what Skutnabb-Kangas calls 'necessary rights' (p. 498). On an individual level, necessary rights support identity with the mother tongue and on a collective level, they allow for a group to exist and to reproduce their language and culture. In education, LHRs should guarantee identity with and learning through the medium of the MT, the right to become bilingual, the individual right to make choices with regard to changes in language, and that all should profit from education. The author traces a short history of language rights in the West before presenting a grid (first introduced in Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson 1994 p. 80) that maps 'Degrees of Promotion-Prohibition and Overtness-Covertness' of LHRs (p. 512). She analyzes national and international policies and documents using the grid. Negative and positive movement in sanctioning and applying LHRs is discussed, but the overall conclusion is that policies and actions to date are gravely deficient.

    Chapter 8 'Linguistic Human Rights In Education?' Having established in the previous chapter that one of the LHRs ought to be bi- or multilingualism, the question of how education should be implemented and what kind of bilingualism should be the goal are posited. In a departure from previous categories for Bilingual Education (BE), which usually include only 'strong' (the result of which is high levels of bilingualism) and 'weak' (the result of which is dominance in one language) forms, Skutnabb-Kangas adds 'non-forms,' that is those 'which lead to virtual monolingualism' (p. 580). Non-forms include monolingual programs with foreign language teaching, submersion and segregation programs. Weak forms are early and late exit transitional programs; and strong forms are two-way, maintenance, immersion and plural multilingual models. This chapter includes an informative discussion on the linguistic ability of teachers in strong form programs offering fresh insight on the place of the nonnative teacher in bi- and multilingual education.

    Chapter 9, 'Alternatives to Genocide and Dystopia,' concludes the book with a call for 'Civic Pluralism' where access to power and resources is available to all persons. This will be accomplished 'when the state and educational authorities stop being a problem, maintenance programmes become a natural human right, and minority languages a resource' (p.654).


    According to the author, this book is intended for students, teachers and others involved in education, health workers in minority contexts, parents of minority children, minority leaders and lobbyists, and politicians (p. xv). However, two features of the book may alienate potential readers before they get beyond the cover. The first is the title, specifically the choice of the word 'genocide'. Although she acknowledges the horror of physical genocide, Skutnabb-Kangas argues that serious psychological damage is done when the identity associated with use of one's own language is denied, and individuals and groups are 'psychologically transferred to another group' (p. xxxiii). The author's intention is to politicize the issue in order to confront the reality of the situation -- that is, that languages are not dying natural deaths; they are being killed. (For the full defense of the word/metaphor choice see p. xxxi -- xxxiii.)

    The second possible barrier to the would-be reader is the sheer volume of the book. At over 700 pages, and packed with definitions, data charts, tables and statistics, the magnitude may deter some.

    If you can get beyond above-mentioned obstacles to the book, and I strongly suggest that you do, you will find it well organized and thoroughly researched. Some of the material will be familiar, even repetitious, to those acquainted with Skutnabb-Kangas' earlier work. This time, though, her convictions about linguistic humans rights are bolstered as she takes on larger issues not normally associated directly with linguistics or education. For example, in Info Box 6. 12 (p. 437) Monsanto, a transnational company, is attacked for manufacturing pesticides that contaminate water in Denmark (home of the author.) In the same chapter, the United States is criticized for relegating the Other to prison (Info Box 6.16, p. 457) or poverty. Even Mother Teresa is targeted. In the Introduction, p. xxi-xxii, where the reader is encouraged to ask the difficult 'Why?' questions relating to discriminatory practices, Skutnabb-Kangas quotes from a letter to the editor of the Guardian Weekly that criticized Mother Teresa and Princess Diana for playing it safe in imparting charity without fighting for justice. These assessments are relevant, however critical, as Skutnabb-Kangas demonstrates how unequal power and resource distribution is preserved through the education systems in place in most minority contexts. For those readers who are already of the conviction that language choices for education play an important role in the structuring of society, this book likely will strengthen your certainty. For those who are new to the notion or who disagree, Skutnabb-Kangas' book may overwhelm or offend.

    I recommend the book as a valuable addition to the library of anyone who is interested in language, education, diversity (linguistic primarily, but cultural and biological as well) or human rights. It is organized in such a way that it can be readily consulted as a reference book. It contains addresses (18 total Address Boxes) from the International Clearing House for Endangered Languages (p. 29) to the Centre for Human Rights, United Nations Offices at Geneva and New York (p. 484) to Electronic resources on Kurdistan, the Kurds, and the Kurdish language (p. 521). Definition boxes (44 of them) clarify the difference between Post-modernity and Post-modernism (p. 451), provide two different definitions for 'Indigenous peoples' (p. 488) and define linguistic terms like diglossia (p.72) and planned languages (p.280). My only criticism in this regard is that there are so many boxes, and so many different types (differentiated by the borders and style - double lined frame for 'Reader Task Boxes,' shading for 'Inserts,' etc.) that it is easy to lose track. For example, in Chapter 7 Section (p. 544), the reader is referred back to Definition Boxes 7.1 and 7.2. If you flip back hoping to encounter these in section 7.1, you will first find Info Box 7.1 (p. 483), then Address Box 7.1 (p.484), before getting to Definition Boxes 7.1 and 7.2 on p. 488. The best alternative in this case is to consult the page numbers in the easy-to-read outlines at the beginning of each chapter. Another extremely valuable resource contained in the book is the 1500 plus bibliographical references.

    This book could well be used as a text for a sociolinguistics class or incorporated into a course on human rights, education, human diversity or intercultural communication. The Reader Task Boxes especially lend themselves to discussion. For example, a reader task box in chapter 3 asks the reader to 'observe how Self and Other are labelled' and to try different labels and discuss the implications (p. 148).

    As already mentioned, the book is likely to offend, even the converted. The tone is confrontational, the ideas, challenging and the assertions, demanding. The purpose of the book is to provoke -- or at least to 'change the way you see a few things' (p. xvi). I highly recommend the book, in part because it goes beyond being a solid, well-argued academic work, to ultimately being a call to action. The final paragraph alleges that 'writing books is useless unless it is combined with overt political action' (p. 667). According to the author, the ones who do the writing -- researchers, teachers, scholars, academics, probably most of the types who will read the book -- are the same ones who should be engaged in the action.


    Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove & Phillipson, Robert (1994). Linguistic human rights, past and present. In Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove & Phillipson, Robert (Eds.), in collaboration with Mart Rannut. Linguistic Human Rights. Overcoming Linguistic Discrimination. Contributions to the Sociology of Language 67. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 71-110.

    The Reviewer: Kathleen Tacelosky, Ph.D., teaches at William Jewell College. Her research interests include the role of language in education and the sociolinguistic implications of language choice, particularly in South America. She can be reached at