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We Maximia* Have (Linguistic) Rights!

Updated: Feb 22

*maximia = children, in Romani language

field notes 1

Madame what is (linguistic) justice after all?

The Context

Social and linguistic justice are directly linked to linguistic rights (Piller, 2016). 

As a (foreign) language teacher in primary education mainly with minoritised populations such as Roma children, I try to create a learning space where children not only feel good but also feel proud of the languages they speak, of their multilingual identity and at the same time understand why it is important to learn other languages.

Our school is located in the suburbs of Athens in Greece. Roma and non-Roma families live in the area, however, the majority of students at the school are Roma. The educational action I focus on took place in the French language course. At school in Greece, Greek is the language of schooling and it is also a subject of the curriculum. English is taught as a first foreign language and French or German as second foreign languages. 

My position about the French course focuses on a multilingual lens, meaning that during the course we adopt the basic principles of the foreign language curriculum while drawing on students' multilingual repertoires, seeking to create spaces and moments of enjoyment of linguistic rights. The students have Romani as their first language, and more specifically “Gypsy” or “Mitsikareika”, and Greek as their second language. At the same time, some students may know some words and phrases in Albanian, Russian or Turkish.

In this context, although Romani language dominates the soundscape of the school, it seems to be spoken and used mainly during breaks and in the classroom for communication among students. An attempt was made to legitimize the use of Romani language in the formal course along with French and Greek languages. 

More specifically, I presented the students with a child-friendly version of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, created by the Office of the children's rights ombudswoman in Greece. After the children were introduced to the concept of rights and the value of the Convention, we decided to translate it into Romani. The process took one and a half school years.


I started writing the first article of the convention on the board, leaving space under each sentence for the children to write the translation in Romani language and then fill in some words in French.

The children's first reaction when I asked them to use Romani in the formal context of the lesson was suspicion, because they felt that I was invading their linguistic safe space. They believed that I wanted to learn something from their "secret" language. At first only some of the students participated and even dictated the translation to me without wanting it to be written on the blackboard.

field notes 2

This quickly changed when they felt that I really needed their help to complete the translation. Once the children felt safe, a culture of interaction began to develop.


Greek: Όταν γίνεται πόλεμος τα παιδιά πρέπει να προστατεύονται. 

Romani: Όταν άβολα πόλεμος ο μαξίμια πρέπει τα ρα καντιβέν.

French: guerre les enfants

Greek: Απαγορεύεται να συμμετέχουν σε πόλεμο παιδιά κάτω των 15 ετών.

Romani: Απαγορεύεται τι ντζιαν κο πόλεμος μαξίμια κάτω από 15 χρονών.

French: les enfants 15 ans. 


Greek: Όταν ένα παιδί δεν ζει με την οικογένειά του ή αυτή δεν μπορεί να το φροντίσει, 

Romani: Όταν ισι εκ τσαβό να νε οικογένεια σαρ να μπορεί νε λα τη φροντινελες, 

French: un enfant famille 

Greek: έχει δικαίωμα βοήθειας όπως η υιοθεσία, η φιλοξενία σε άλλη οικογένεια, ή σε ίδρυμα. 

Romani: τερέλα ο δικαίωμας τη βοηθήναλες σαρ υιοθεσία, ή φιλοξενία οικογένεια, ή κο ίδρυμα. 

French: le droit

At the same time, I wrote the articles on the blackboard in Greek while a student translated on the blackboard in Romani language with the support of the rest of his classmates. Other students were using vocabulary in French that they had already been taught.

field notes 3

A Space of Linguistic Justice?

The distance between the table and the desks became shorter. The Romani language sounded louder than usual. The children's interaction evolved into a real negotiation about words and how to place them to convey the meaning of the articles of the convention. Within this negotiation there were also strong emotions such as frustration, joy, pleasure, laughter, nerves!

The above action was situated within a broader effort that I adopted for a more just language education, drawing on the broader context of the decolonisation of language education and (linguistic) rights (Abebe & Biswas, 2021; Roche, 2019). It is a counter-narrative of everyday school life where languages other than Greek are heard loudly, are legitimized in the formal learning context, the power relations between student-teacher change, the power relations between languages also change as Greek is used as an intermediate language to get to Romani and French. 


As a language educator whose ultimate goal is to adopt educational practices to create a space of linguistic justice, I don't know if the moments we experienced during the action could be described as moments of linguistic justice. But certainly, as Castañeda-Peña, Gamboa & Kramsch (2024) notes, it is an attempt to recreate a linearly dominant teaching-learning space into a space of linguistic freedom.

By Sofiá Tsioli. Sofia is an educator who works with children from minoritized groups (Roma/refugee/migrant children and adults). She is also a postdoctoral researcher on linguistic rights and language education policies. 


Abebe, T., & Biswas, T. (2021). Rights in education: outlines for a decolonial, childist reimagination of the future - commentary to Ansell and colleagues. Fennia 199(1), 118-128. 102004

Castañeda-Peña, H.,  Gamboa, P. & Kramsch, C. (eds). (2024). Decolonizing Applied Linguistics Research in Latin America: Moving to a Multilingual Mindset. Routledge. 

Piller, I. (2016). Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice: An Introduction to Applied Sociolinguistics. Oxford University Press. 

Roche, G. 2019. Linguistic Injustice, Decolonization, and Language Endangerment. In Foundation for Endangered Languages Conference. EasyChair Preprint no. 1726.

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