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What Are Linguistic Rights?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2016
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Linguistic rights are the rights people have to speak their native or first language. Enshrined in 1996 by the “Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights” and the “European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages,” the rights also extend to the right to use the language in public interactions as well as in private. Many of the world’s nations are signed up to the Universal Declaration, but the level of implementation varies from nation to nation. Opinions also differ on how the declaration should be put into practical usage.

Work on linguistic rights is part of a larger campaign to improve civil and human rights across the world. While various treaties and agreements included elements on linguistic rights, the majority of work began in the 20th century. The League of Nations laid the groundwork on a number of treaties between 1918 and 1939. After World War 2, the new United Nations (UN) signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

The 1948 declaration led, bit by bit, to the UN’s development of the “Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights in 1996.” Also called the Barcelona Declaration, the declaration lays out basic principles on a person’s right to speak and use his language. Rights in the declaration include the right to be educated in the native language, the right to conduct administration in the native language and the right to use the native language in the judicial system.

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Special consideration was given by the declaration to the linguistic rights of minority languages and, in particular, to endangered languages. While it might be too late for many languages, such as many Native American tongues and Cornish, the protection offered by the declaration could be used to preserve others such as Welsh and Breton. The protection of endangered languages raises the question of whether languages should be allowed to die or be kept alive on artificial life support.

It also raises the question of protecting dialects. Some dialects in England, for example, remain strong such as those in the north and in London, but others, such as the southwest, have died out to be replaced with Standard Queen’s English. The Japanese government, a signatory of the Declaration, still considers the Ryukyu-Okinawa and Yaeyama languages to be dialects of Japanese and, therefore, not subject to protection. Other languages such as Welsh have been protected through legal requirements to translate documents and newspapers and to provide a Welsh language television channel.

In countries with high numbers of immigrants, members of the indigenous majority have raised concerns by the amount of resources being set aside to cope with linguistic multiculturalism. The declaration, however, insists that linguistic rights apply only to peoples and groups who have a historical presence in a country or region, and not to new groups of people. New peoples are still expected to integrate into the majority language in order to access services.

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