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A Life Dedicated to Language Rights: In Memory of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (1940- 2023)



The first ever Language Rights Defenders Award is dedicated to the memory of activist and scholar Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, who sadly passed away on 29 May 2023. Tove’s life and work demonstrate exactly the kind of sustained passion that the Language Rights Defenders Award aims to recognize and celebrate.


Tove was born in Helsinki, Finland during World War II and was raised with two mother tongues: Finnish and Swedish. Her early training as a teacher and scientist brought her into contact with the challenges that immigrant students face in adapting to education in a foreign language, and very early on she became aware of the many benefits of instruction in the mother tongue. Her first doctorate in 1976 was on the topic of bilingualism and how education systems had a duty to support bilingual education for all. Questions of the social, political and linguistic conditions of bilingualism became a lifelong focus of her work.


Based on these early insights, and tirelessly throughout her life, Tove fearlessly advocated for the rights of Indigenous, minority, and tribal peoples, and people who use sign languages. She interacted with policy makers, teachers, academic researchers and community members, bringing attention to the critical need for language support to build opportunities for minority populations. She quickly established an international reputation for shifting the perception of non-dominant language communities from objects of neglect or racism into bearers of human rights. 


Receiving invitations from all over the world to speak about languages in education, Tove became well-known for not only being unrelenting and formidable, but also selfless, kind, generous, and hospitable. These attributes reflect two sides of her life’s work: as an opponent of oppression, discrimination, and exploitation, and as proponent of justice and a builder of relationships, networks, and communities. Accordingly, Tove accumulated both adversaries and allies in abundance.  


Tove began her research in language rights advocacy by contributing to reports for UNESCO on education for the children of Finnish migrant workers in Sweden. For the rest of her career, she retained a strong focus on the predicament that linguistic minority children face in education settings. Tove’s work often revealed schools to be sites of violence, but despite her extensive experience of confronting language rights violations from Namibia to Nunavut, she never stopped believing that schools could be sites of liberation where all children could reach their true potential. To this end, she always encouraged parents and community members to persist in their efforts to have their language rights respected, even when authorities stubbornly refused.  


Tove published profusely during her career. She wrote and edited around 50 books, and authored approximately 400 chapters and articles. Her work was translated into 17 languages. She is well-known for coining the terms linguicism and linguistic human rights, and for developing the concept of linguistic genocide. The title of Tove’s magnum opus, Linguistic Genocide in Education - Or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? typified the moral clarity and force of her scholarship.   


In addition to being a scholar who made unique and germinal contributions to the study of language rights, Tove also devoted years of her life to building a community of practice to defend language rights and develop ideas and tools to support this aim. She traveled the world, learning from and supporting Indigenous, minority, and tribal people wherever she went. She worked on journal committees and organizational boards, trained PhD students, advocated in a variety of UN forums, and connected activists and academics all around the world. The enormous Handbook of Linguistic Human Rights, which she edited with her husband Robert Phillipson and published shortly before her death, brought together 62 contributors from around the world, all part of a community that Tove fostered over a period of decades. She has been described as a mentor, a lighthouse, and a role model. 


Tove believed that academic work should have relevance beyond the academy, so she worked hard to make her work widely available, and always encouraged other scholars to do the same. Her ideas thus reached people well beyond the university and outside the countries and contexts where economic privilege makes accessing knowledge easy. An archive of her work can be found on her website: http://tove-skutnabb-kangas.org/.

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