Notes on the ideological challenges of minority language activism

In this post I continue my discussion of the transnational movement for linguistic rights by exploring some of the big ideological challenges facing minority language activists. As in any social movement context, proponents of linguistic rights and minority language revitalization must engage in a protracted battle of ideas so as to frame their agenda in a manner that generates legitimacy and support in the public sphere. Two of the most salient framing challenges faced by minority language advocates are linked to the utilitarian view of linguistic worth, and the political legacy of linguistic assimilation.  

The utilitarian view of linguistic worth posits that the value of a language rests largely if not solely on the capacity of that language to promote socio-economic mobility and opportunity.  The greater the capacity a language has for promoting material advancement the more likely it is to be valorized and adopted by growing numbers of individuals. Conversely, the weaker the capacity of a language to promote people’s socio-economic interests, the more likely it is to depreciate in value and become abandoned by individuals over time.  This ideology takes up an instrumental evaluation of human languages that is rooted in social darwinism and neo-classical economics with its accompanying notion that social life is akin to a commercial marketplace. This utilitarian perspective of language is a major challenge for minority language movements because collective actions in defense of  ‘less useful’ languages are criticized as ‘irrational’. In this context, minority language activists are often accused of pursuing a romantic and anachronistic agenda that will ultimately harm the life chances of linguistic minorities by ‘depriving’ them of the opportunity to fully  acquire ‘more useful’ languages. Poorly equipped  with a minority language, it is argued, minorities will be ‘handicapped’ and unable to effectively compete in the wider world around them.  This perspective is often illustrated in the US, for example, by opponents of bilingual education who claim that the normalization of low status minority languages such as Spanish or Haitian Creole within the education system will inhibit the proper learning of English and thus prevent minority youths from achieving socioeconomic mobility.

Minority language activists often combat this ideological stance by arguing that 1.) the value of a language as defined among its speakers is typically defined in strongly emotional and affective terms and not solely by material/instrumental needs, and 2.) people can and do speak multiple languages with knowledge of one language actually enhancing rather than corrupting knowledge of other languages.

The political legacy of linguistic assimilation stems from the entrenched belief that linguistic diversity promotes conflict and instability. The basic tenet here is that societal multilingualism poses a public problem that must be suppressed if not eradicated through politico-legal mechanisms. This belief is firmly rooted in the history of modern nationalism and the conviction that socio-political order and unity necessitate linguistic homogeneity; i.e. ‘one nation, one state, one language.’ This is not merely to argue that nations necessitate a common language, but rather that what is most desirable is a single language. Actors and organizations that advocate for policies of linguistic pluralism and rights for linguistic minorities are thus often criticized in this light as pushing a radical and seditious agenda which threaten the unanimity of the nation-state.  Proponents of linguistic rights in France, for example, have long been portrayed as militant nationalists even when such actors have no affiliation to nationalist political parties and make no claims about territorial autonomy.

Minority language activists often engage with the political challenge of linguistic assimilation by arguing that multilingualism generally only becomes a source of political conflict when the languages of minority groups are actively suppressed and excluded by governmental agencies. In this light, political stability and order emerge through a recognition rather than repression of minority languages. Another point typically argued is that political advocacy for minority languages does not necessarily entail a seditious subversion or rejection of common national languages. In general, minority language activists tend to promote a bi- or multi-lingual model of nationhood whereby linguistic homogeneity is construed as an obstacle rather than opportunity for realizing democratic principles of citizenship and governance.

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