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Review of  Language Without Rights

Reviewer: Dave Sayers
Book Title: Language Without Rights
Book Author: Lionel Wee
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 22.2311

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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

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

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

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

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.


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): 351-376.

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): 34-50.

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.

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