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Language Rights and Conflict: An Interview with Joe Lo Bianco

One of two short interviews by Gerald Roche with academics and other experts who work on issues related to language rights, asking them to introduce their work and discuss how language rights help to save lives.

1. Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your work in general?

My name is Joe Lo Bianco. I am a retired professor of language and literacy education at Melbourne University, a position I held from 2004. Before joining the university, I was director of Language Australia, a national network of language research centres. Before that I had worked in policy and community activism around multiculturalism, language rights, language education, from the mid to late 1970s. I have worked as a teacher, a union official, a community development officer, a public researcher, a writer, a public policy official and an academic. Since the National Policy on Languages was adopted as Australia’s first multilingual policy in 1987, I received a huge number of invitations from across Australia and internationally to help with writing language policies for multilingualism. This meant that for thirty years now I have been working with governments, community groups and UN agencies in the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Western Europe, South and North Africa and other parts of the world on ‘solving language problems’.

2. Can you tell us about some of the places where you have conducted research, and

the conflicts and language rights issues there?

Across the South Pacific I’ve been involved with bilingual education in Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, on local languages and advocating for the rights of creole speakers. I also did some work on language in disaster warning and management, including in Hawai’i. Language rights issues involve the ability of people to create/recreate intact communities to control the depth and pace of cultural change, but also equitable access to languages of power, generally the small scale of national economies makes it a huge question to ground future generations in sovereign control of resources, retaining the political autonomy many achieved recently. Language is tied to all this, not always centrally, but often.

In Myanmar, where I have worked in recent years, language grievances are tied up with the claims of recognised ethnic groups to some measure of control over education and cultural autonomy. It varies a lot across the country, but there have been multiple wars and ongoing tension between central authorities, controlled by the dominant Bamar, and the demands of minority populations for various kinds of autonomy. My work here involved running more than 45 deliberation conferences, all across the country, to find local solutions to multilingual demands, and then tie these into a national policy. We managed to draft a consensus approach in three state legislatures, and a national draft, but nothing that was achieved in the relative openness of the past decade has survived the violent overthrow of the democratically elected government in February 2022. Language questions were often raised as a grievance by minorities; one sign of the power of dominant groups is their ability to refuse to recognise demands, and so the official peace processes, even under the transitional semi-democracy of the past decade, never devoted much attention to language issues.

I have also worked in Sri Lanka, where language questions were much more directly tied to conflict. A 1956 language law was one of the main triggers of what transformed unresolved inter-communal tensions into decades of open conflict and violent civil war. I worked in Sri Lanka in the late 1990s early 2000s on many projects, including what was called at the time ‘swabasha education’ (teaching Tamil in Sinhala medium schools and Sinhala in Tamil medium schools, and drafting a trilingual education policy). I worked in the National Institute for Education, but also on many smaller commissions for community groups and NGOs. Language issues have been an ongoing minority grievance, with constitutional changes reflecting different accommodations at different times (interestingly the re-introduction of English into the constitution was promoted by India as a peace-building initiative after the deployment of an Indian Peace Keeping Force for 2 years in the late 1980s between Sri Lankan Tamil nationalists and the Sri Lankan military. Language issues pervade a great deal of education, health, community relations, administration and civil life in Sri Lanka, and while the main question is how much and what kind of recognition to give Tamil, there are many other language issues.

South Thailand and Malaysia are other settings where I have had extended work commissions and community engagement. I will only discuss Southern Thailand here, which has had a violent conflict for some decades in which the Pattani Malay speaking Muslim majority of three Thai regions has demanded recognition of its language. It is much more complex than this, involving issues of script and other languages, but generally minority language rights in education, public administration etc have been highly contested. Evidence for this is the large number of teachers killed for teaching a national curriculum rejected by minority militants as assimilationist.

My work in these settings is both research and policy coordination. I used a method of policy writing called facilitated dialogue that I think is unusual in language policy writing. When we had the autonomy to do it properly, it took the form of a radically democratic but expertise-based form of language problem solving. It requires us to accept the social structures that define given communication realities as ‘problems’ but dissolves them through facilitator led processes to write new locally applicable policy designs. Normally, state officials define what counts as a language problem to be given policy attention, and these typically advance the interests of dominant groups, but in facilitated dialogue we try to ‘begin fresh’ even within these constraints. Although a dialogue is based on participatory ideals, facilitation is essential because the environments in which this is held, and the reason for being there in the first place, are constrained by state power, by ideologies and existing practices, and determined by contracts that grant permission for work in these settings, as well as evaluations and reviews run by officials, such as education ministries. You can’t undo past unfair arrangements by pretending they are not there.

3. Based on your research, do you think safeguarding language rights can help prevent

conflict and save lives?

Yes, and denial of language rights causes conflict. I think this occurs in two main ways: fast- and slow-acting. Slow-acting effects are the intergenerational creation of disadvantage or oppression. Take literacy in dominant languages as an example. It is clear from school participation rates that minority language students are ‘pushed out’ of schooling, compounded by family poverty and dominant curriculum unresponsiveness. Literacy and language policies often generate inequality, making access to the official language ‘conditional’ on abandonment of mother tongues, either explicitly or as an effect of how time is allocated in curriculum and what resources are provided etc. So, with unequal access to dominant languages of power and stigma attached to mother tongues (and often to how minorities speak the majority language) a slow-acting conflict-aggravating social inequality results. In print-saturated societies (including digital ones) written language control can also be very excluding, as are the educated registers (academic language) of dominant languages. So, all these are ways in which unjust language policies produce the conditions for conflict. The second main way is through language in use: discourse such as hate speech, or any kind of exclusionary language that positions some groups in inferior status and directs hostility toward them. Safeguarding language rights can help overcome the slow-acting erosion of social cohesion through poverty and inequality, and prevent the fast acting hostility of exclusion and alienation.

4. Are there other ways that language rights can help save lives?

The most obvious way is during times of crisis, environmental and political. The provision of health information in languages that people know, access to doctors, safety information (such as during cyclones or when preventing the spread of disease). In all these situations we see that what are claimed to affect all people equally (slogans such as ‘disease does not discriminate’) are only part true. People’s resilience and responsiveness and safety are differentiated according to the information they have, the services available to them, and the resources and protections available. Mostly these are socio-economic, but they are also cultural and linguistic. Because of how societies are stratified, groups experience disease and calamity differently.

5. Can you give us some recommendations of things to read or watch on this topic?

This work is practical and grounded. UNICEF and UNESCO have produced a lot of documentation and procedures/recommendations for preparedness that takes account of linguistic diversity. Often it is national governments that don’t follow through. Decades ago, a senior radio broadcaster (a well-known ‘progressive’ individual), on Australia’s national broadcaster, no less, made incredibly offensive parodies of Vietnamese and other community language messages on bush fire preparation during a serious emergency in the state of Victoria. With a colleague I wrote a letter protesting this. We saw during the COVID emergency how slack the provision of support for minority communities continues to be.

6. Currently, what standing do language rights concepts and practices have within

Australia and countries in the region? Are they widely used or not?

There has been a growing awareness of the pragmatic benefits of acknowledging language rights (even if governments never use this terminology) but in Australia things were much better in practical terms in the heyday of multiculturalism of the 1970s and 1980s. Even then there was more well-meaning (and occasionally malevolent) rhetoric but in practice interpreting and translating services in health and legal settings, and language education in schools etc, were much more robust and recognised. I belong to a group organised by UNESCO/UNICEF based in Bangkok that works for language rights in education across the Asia Pacific. In some regions there has been a lot of progress there (a book out later this year documents some of this) and at the UN level there has been much more attention to language rights of minority populations (sub-national groups), and this is positive. But most action takes place within state structures, and these limit the autonomy of minority groups and constrain the possibilities for full recognition of rights. In cases of extreme oppression, however, any form of consciousness raising or even small-scale amelioration, is a worthwhile intervention in my view. I reject the view that small actions are futile.

In some cases, our facilitated dialogues have focused on training local communities for policy action, on how to predict and resist policy officials’ intimidation, on how to ‘get a foot in the door’ and begin to shift attitudes. This is very necessary within a community that has absorbed a sense of inferior status from dominant others. I regard these as the first phase of language policy writing, concerning consciousness on to begin the language planning that can push out of the domains into which a minoritized and non-dominant language has been relegated. The practice of how to write policy, how to begin with others’ definition of your language (or writing system, or literature, or ‘dialect’) and begin to think this into an active productive stance of change, is something that is learned and can be taught. In practice, nearly everywhere, we see a movement to value minority languages, to reject deficit constructions of minority children’s forms of speech, and to include language and communication in health and disaster preparedness, even while official policies insist on exclusive use of dominant languages. So, there is some movement towards language rights.

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