Updated: Nov 29, 2022
The Global Coalition for Languages Rights will hold our second Global Language Advocacy Day on February 22nd, 2023. The theme for next year’s global event will be “Language Rights Save Lives.” In this short post, we introduce why we believe that language rights are literally a matter of life and death, providing links through to the many research studies that support this point.
First, and most obviously, language rights save lives in healthcare. Our capacity to fully enjoy good health and wellbeing depends on language, and denying language rights in healthcare harms people. For example, patients who speak non-dominant languages are perceived negatively and treated poorly in healthcare settings; people often refuse to listen to them and take their concerns seriously. Failure to provide trained interpreters, particularly in doctor-patient interactions, reduces healthcare quality, and failure to provide linguistically appropriate public health information during pandemics leads to disproportionately higher infection and death rates. This in turn impacts everyone and slows down efforts to contain the spread of disease among the entire population, regardless of the language they speak or sign. On the other hand, we know that participation in public health initiatives increases when people’s linguistic needs are met. During COVID, we thus saw calls for a ‘linguistic turn’ in public health.
Language rights also save lives whenever natural disasters strike. A recent study examining the role of language in disaster response reminds us that “clear, timely, and accurate information is … critical to disaster response effectiveness,” including the prevention of unnecessary deaths. Multilingual responses to disasters that respect everyone’s language rights help to increase trust and curtail misinformation. Groups that are already marginalized in other ways, such as Indigenous people, are particularly impacted by linguistic discrimination during disasters. However, even groups that are relatively privileged socially and economically may be exposed to disproportionate risk due to linguistic discrimination during crises.
Language rights also save lives at school. Historically, denial of language rights in education was often accompanied by “severe physical abuse,” “frequently at the physical site of language: the mouth and the tongue.” As the Canadian case shows, children have died in schools that sought to rob them of their language, and unfortunately, the contemporary case of Tibet shows that such colonial boarding schools are not a thing of the past. Language rights, education, and life are also connected through more diffuse long-term effects. For example, we know that mother-tongue education helps people succeed in education, and that educational success is strongly correlated with life-expectancy. Mother tongue education leads to better quality of life, and longer life.
Language rights also save lives by preventing discrimination. Discrimination is not just unjust—it also harms the body. The stark difference in life-expectancy between dominant groups and those they discriminate against has been called the ‘death gap’. For example, one study estimates that discrimination against Black Americans has caused a total of 4.2 million ‘unnecessary’ deaths in the US since 1964. Discrimination also includes the continuing refusal to make reparations for historical injustices. For example, a 2021 study that showed how reparations for slavery would have significantly reduced the disproportionate incidence of COVID-19 among Black Americans. Discrimination against people on the basis of language harms them directly, and this harm continues across generations.
The reverse is also true. Language rights save lives when they support groups to reclaim and revitalize their languages. Indigenous people have observed that language is associated with health, well-being, and healing. Language maintenance and reclamation make positive contributions to individual and communal health and wellbeing. A 2016 literature review found that Indigenous language use was associated with lower rates of smoking and alcohol consumption. Another recent study reported an increased sense of belonging, strengthened social ties, and improved mental and emotional wellbeing amongst language reclamation practitioners. Indigenous language use is also correlated with reduced suicide rates. One study even found correlations between Indigenous language maintenance and decreased prevalence of diabetes.
Finally, language rights also save lives during conflicts. During conflicts it is crucial to provide accurate and timely information in languages that people know best about sites of fighting, civilian escape corridors, etc. The denial of language rights is often a motivation for violent conflict (both rebellions and wars between states). Protecting language rights thus prevents conflicts and prevents deaths.
So, for all these reasons, we will be focusing on the theme “Language Rights Save Lives” for the 2023 Global Language Advocacy Day. On February 22nd next year, we will be organizing events and other activities to help draw attention to this important issue, and hopefully to promote action on language rights that will help save lives.