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How we Created the GCLR’s Statement on Understanding and Defending Language Rights

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

By Gerald Roche and Katie Craig

On February 22nd, 2023, the Global Coalition for Language Rights (GCLR) released a short text called Understanding and Defending Language Rights. At the time of writing, this text is available in 16 languages, and more translations are planned. This blog post introduces why and how we wrote this statement.

Impetus and Underlying Principles

The impetus to create this statement came from GCLR members, particularly activists who work with communities to promote language rights. We heard numerous times from different members that a persistent challenge they face is a lack of awareness of language rights. The basic aim of the statement, then, is to help raise awareness of what language rights are.

To achieve this goal, we wanted a statement that was accessible and easy to understand. We also wanted to make the text available in as many languages as possible, so it could be used in diverse contexts.

The original text was drafted in English by a group of GCLR members (scroll down to the end of the text for group members’ names). To make the text accessible we avoided the abstract, archaic and legalistic language often used in human rights declarations. Instead, we aimed for short, simple sentences, each focused on a single idea. We simplified the vocabulary by using high frequency words. We also aimed to make the language concrete and dynamic, focused on actions, people, places, and things. Finally, we also wanted the text to be short, so it could be easily shared on social media; in English, the final text is just 326 words.

The Drafting Process and the Content of the Text

To create the draft text, members of a small working group of coalition members met over Zoom to discuss the content, tone, and potential uses of the text. On the basis of these discussions, the group facilitator, Gerald Roche, created an initial draft. This was then circulated to group members for comments. After discussion and revision, this text was next given to translators, who were asked to translate the text and provide feedback on the content and the ‘translatability’ of the text. All versions were then circulated on social media (Twitter and Facebook) to receive further feedback. Finally, group members met again to discuss this feedback and finalize the text.

The final text covers three broad areas. The first area consists of two paragraphs dealing with ‘domains’ of language rights: the places or situations where people can claim language rights. These included domains like school, employment, healthcare, the media and so on. The second area, which is the focus of just one paragraph, focuses on non-discrimination. This refers to the idea that people should not be discriminated against because of their language. Finally, the third broad area that the statement deals with is ‘self-determination’. This refers to a community’s right to make decisions about their own language. Overall then, the definition of language rights provided in our text covers the right to use a language across domains, the right to non-discrimination, and the right to self-determination.

Following this summary of what language rights are, the final two paragraphs of the text provide a call to action. This provides suggestions about what individuals and communities can do if any of their language rights are violated. This call to action will be discussed further below, but first, let’s examine some of the issues that came up in the process of seeking feedback.

Design Issues

Some of the feedback we received focused on design aspects of how the text was presented for circulation on social media. One thing we had to consider was the length of the text. Although consisting of only a few hundred words, our initial effort to put the entire text in a single image did not work out. The text was too small and crowded to read on a phone. It was impossible to read without zooming in, and created a confused and confusing first impression.

Considering this, we developed design solutions to enable the dissemination and consumption of the text on social media via phone. We originally divided the text into nine pages, but felt that this required too much scrolling, so we settled on five instead. These pages included: a title page; one page on language rights domains; another on non-discrimination and self-determination; a call to action page; and a page asking how the GCLR can support language rights advocates.

We then separated the text on each page into distinct chunks, to help the audience process, understand, and retain the information more easily. We also used colored blocks and selective highlighting to give more visual interest and keep the reader engaged. Colors were limited to red and gray scale in order to maintain simplicity, mimicking the content of the text. In implementing these features, we aimed to avoid the typical presentation of rights declarations—legalistic language written in long paragraphs, with no visual interest—in the hope that this would aid wide dissemination.

Another strategy to aid wide dissemination was translation. So far, the text has only been translated into written languages, thus excluding signed and spoken languages. We hope to develop strategies for these in the future. Since the design was also based on an English language template, this also created some issues. The space provided for the text was based on English, and transferring other languages into this template required some adjustments to be made in the size of text boxes. So far, this has not had any major impacts on the design, but we still hope to create versions in many more languages, and anticipate that we may have more design problems to solve in the future.

Thorny Issues and Compromises

Regarding the text itself, one aspect that received a lot of feedback was the phrasing ‘someone took away your language rights’. Several people suggested that this way of describing human rights violations undermines the inherent nature of rights: that they are natural possessions that cannot be taken away. However, most of the alternatives—terms such as ‘violated’—contravened our principle of simplicity. We also felt that the phrasing of ‘taking away’ language rights gave the text a concrete and visceral character that made it easier to imagine and understand language rights violations.

A second issue that we struggled with was whether or not the text erases multilingualism and promotes a simplistic, even harmful, understanding of linguistic diversity. Again, we experimented with phrases such as ‘the language or languages that you and/or your community identify with,’ but again we found that these violated the principle of simplicity. What we want to make clear, and what we assume readers will infer, is that the phrase ‘your language’ does not imply that the addressee only has one language. Instead, it implies that they have, or identify with, a language that is marginalized or oppressed: a language to which they are denied rights.

These issues (and others) were difficult to negotiate. Most were characterized by a trade-off between simplicity and precision. We have privileged simplicity in all cases, in the hope that this helps the concept of language rights spread further. We made this difficult choice because we think that broad awareness of language rights is urgently needed.

Putting the Statement to Use

In trying to promote awareness of language rights, the problem we are confronting is what philosophers refer to as ‘hermeneutic injustice’. Hermeneutic injustice occurs when people and communities are denied the intellectual resources to interpret their own oppression, and to create their own pathways to liberation. Hermeneutic injustice exists wherever people accept their oppression as normal, natural, or even just. Communities all around the world today are denied knowledge of language rights. States and other powerful actors perpetuate this hermeneutic injustice as part of their mechanisms for maintaining their domination. Our statement aims to erode that domination wherever we can.

Our statement on language rights is informed by an underlying model for how that domination can be eroded, and this informs the call to action that comes at the conclusion of the statement. This model comes from mainstream human rights activism, and is known as naming and shaming. Large human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have used this strategy successfully for decades, but it is typically not applied to language rights activism. Naming and shaming aims to change the behaviors and policies of rights violators through public pressure. Long experience shows that it works.

The GCLR statement on language rights thus encourages people to identify the agent (individual or institutional) who has ‘taken away’ any of the language rights outlined in the text. Importantly, it encourages people to publicly identify that agent in any way possible: public protest, social media, and other avenues. In doing so, we aim to pressure rights violators to cease their oppressive behaviors, while also exonerating the victim from responsibility.

Finally, we wanted the call to action to acknowledge some of the hard realities of language rights activism. We know that ‘naming and shaming’ is always a David and Goliath struggle of enormous power disparities. Sometimes it comes with real risks. The statement therefore ends by emphasizing the importance of solidarity. We believe that by working together we can both amplify the messages of naming and shaming, and help to improve the safety of the advocates, activists, and allies who engage in it. And in this way, we can help to secure language rights for all.

Members of the Working Group:

Avishta Seeras, Creator and Producer, Lingua-Cultura Experience

Diana Camps, Research Fellow, University of Glasgow

Gerald Roche, Senior Lecturer in Politics, La Trobe University

John Prendergast, West Kerry Irish Language Planning Officer, Tobar Dhuibhne

Katie Craig, Independent Language and Education Consultant

Naomi Filmore, University of Queensland

Plus several others who wished to remain anonymous

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