Linguistic Rights
in the World,
the current situation

United Nations,
24th of April 2008

Digno kaj justeco por ĉiu el ni

Dignidad y justicia para todas y todos

Dignité et justice pour nous tous

Dignity and justice for all of us
Lingvaj Rajtoj | Diritti Linguistici | Droits Linguistiques | Linguistic Rights

Probal Dasgupta

Substantive language rights

Geneva, 24 April 2008

Probal Dasgupta: Substantive language rights

Prof. Probal Dasgupta: Substantive language rights. Symposium on Linguistic Rights, UN, Geneva, 24-04-08

This year marks the centenary of Universal Esperanto Association (UEA) and the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of language. We also remember 1998, the year in which Lee Chong-yeong, then president of UEA, organized a pioneering symposium in the UN Office in Geneva to celebrate the UDHR's golden jubilee. We thank our predecessors - the idea of a sequel, in fact, came from Lee Chong-yeong, who was speaking as an Asian to a fellow Asian. But 2008 is important in its own right.

The UN has declared 2008 as the International Year of Languages to address the alarming loss of languages and erosion of communities. The fact that UEA views the neutral character of Esperanto as a resource for the conservation of endangered languages is well known. But what exactly is UEA up to in the domain of language rights? Outside our special concern with the teaching and use of Esperanto, just what goals connected with language rights do we share with other stakeholders?

One of our traditional domains of joint action has been scholarly research. When it became clear, for instance, that a bottleneck in the study of language policy, official and otherwise, was holding up serious discussion, UEA started a journal in the sixties to encourage academic work in that domain. That journal, Language Problems and Language Planning, has come to be seen as a pioneering periodical that helped establish language policy as a social science.

Advances in social science research on language rights since then have been dramatic. In the economic, political, legal and sociological study of democratic societies, academics concerned with language rights today have a reasonable understanding, over a wide range of contexts, of the various issues, accomplishments, and gaps to be filled. But the title of my presentation suggests that I think this paradigm may not be entirely equal to the task.

To see why not, let us consider an idealized picture. Imagine all speech communities suddenly attaining formal equality in the language rights domain. You get to talk to authorities in your mother tongue; they reply in the same language. Is that ideal world - possibly spiced up by many speakers using Esperanto to reach foreigners - precisely what our movement is trying to bring about? Are we to regard English and Esperanto as being in principle parallel candidates for world language status differing only in that English is "owned" by a speech community? Can scholarly debate about their respective merits rest on such a basis?

For contemporary discussion to face language diversity loss as an aspect of the environmental crisis, it is important not to confine ourselves to the economics-focused characterization of the problem. And indeed the goal around which our work as Esperantists is to be understood, the goal that we hope we share with our current and future partners, has to do not just with access to democratic forms, but with extending the substantive social welfare of citizens to the linguistic domain.

We have always based our advocacy for Esperanto on the ease of acquiring and using it, which is a substantive property. A closer look may be necessary in order to grasp the role this factor plays in the debate as we view it. Given that Esperanto words highlight the work done by affixes - for instance, the word for 'stationery shop' is skrib-il-ar-ej-o, whose movable pieces mean write, instrument, aggregate, place, noun - the learner can acquire just a few word-making pieces and can then puzzle out, and produce, a very large number of words.

Does this pedagogic facilitation save time only in the learning of Esperanto? Of course not; the fact that such word formation sharpens the learner's ability to perceive word structure means that learning some Esperanto first speeds up a learner's subsequent acquisition of a foreign language, the so-called propaedeutic effect. Based on this relatively old discovery, some of us have taken up foreign language teaching initiatives in Europe and Asia. Our traditional partner UNESCO has explicitly encouraged this component of our programmes in connection with the International Year of Languages. Esperanto serves as a unique resource for the heightening of language awareness, then.

Language awareness is not just a factor in foreign language learning. All environmentalists recognize that if we are to sustainably raise the quality of our social and psychological environment, we need to cultivate awareness of how we are connected to our physical and mental surroundings. Contributing as it does to such cultivation, Esperanto goes beyond mere usefulness as a foreign language learning facilitator.

Consider, for example, measures for maximizing public access to the legal system that stress the language facilitation issue even in the case of a single language. The United States under Jimmy Carter initiated plain language legislation making it mandatory to post plain language descriptions of the responsibilities of the administration and the citizen's rights. The movement of India's dalits - the Hindu system's former "untouchables" - for social dignity has been pressing for a reversal of elite-driven vocabulary opacity in academic and official texts in Indian languages. In Japan there have been some successes in expanding the space, in publicly visible written material, for the use of the relatively easy-to-read syllabic characters. Only initiatives based on the prototypically easy link language Esperanto make it meaningful to seek a common thread - and a connection with language rights - in these attempts to maximize the transparency of language use even in monolingual contexts.

Why raise such points in a discussion of the inadequacy of the formal construal of the right of citizens to use their mother tongue in communications with the state? I am coming from the idea that the crisis management mode often leads us into panic-driven inappropriate responses. The world is indeed losing many languages, and many individuals are experiencing the personal loss of mother tongues and assimilation into more powerful speech communities. Even in the face of this crisis, it would be a mistake to confine ourselves to the important - but too narrowly law-focused - enterprise of viewing the notion of language rights (in the governmental domain, construed as including education) simply in terms of the right to use the mother tongue. Even an entirely successful campaign to promote formal equality of rights is unlikely to bring about substantive democracy.

It would have been possible to illustrate this claim by mentioning what has and has not followed from the laws that were supposed to help the Dalits, the best known victims in India's history. But time constraints make it inappropriate to invoke material that will look opaque to many of you: I would like to reason with you on the basis of what looks rational in the light of examples you will not find opaque.

Let us then consider Canada's method of translating its Francophone and Anglophone populations into formal equality since the so-called quiet revolution of the sixties. A recent study by Sherry Simon shows1 that government sponsored literary translations strike readers in Quebec as clumsy and overzealous. Given this reflex reaction, those who want to write - and read - authentic translations are compelled to find ways around this response, and to fashion alternative ways of translating.

Governments, being astute, easily come up with tricks so that mechanically speaking they can implement the feel-good legislation that many of us pin our hopes on. If they implement future mother tongue conservation laws by arranging for bureaucratic, xeroxlike mass translation from powerful languages, minority language speakers will only appear to have access to their mother tongue - without being able to receive serious input in it in the official (including the educational) domain. We need intellectual tools capable of diagnosing as pathological such non-serious implementation of linguistic human rights legislation. The economics-focused social science approach to the problem, though an important advance, does not provide the right diagnostics in such scenarios.

Minority speech communities need to increase their self-confidence to the point of discursive creativity: they need to make sure their ideas are articulated and heard. We in the Esperanto movement take the position that such a process must involve not just their mother tongues per se, but also the necessary negotiation between easy and difficult registers within the languages they use. It is in this connection that we see some relevance for the linguistic element awareness enhancing function of Esperanto at the substantive interface between the social science approaches and the humanities approaches to our shared academic concerns. This is not the time to inform you about the interdisciplinary "substantivist" approach to these issues developed by some of us in and around technical linguistics. Instead, I thank you for your attention to these introductory remarks; I say hello to Geneva, which gave the world Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structural linguistics, and I remember his brother René de Saussure, who was responsible for our sophisticated understanding of the versatility of word formation in Esperanto. By way of greeting and thanking the organizers of this symposium, I come to the real point - which is to hand over the microphone, and the discursive rights at this symposium, to the real speakers.

1 Simon, Sherry. 2006. Translating Montreal: Episodes in the life of a divided city. Montreal and Kingston/ London/ Ithaca: McGill-Queen's University Press.

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