Fields of Minority Language Activism (Part One)

As part of my ongoing series on minority language advocacy,  in this post I continue my discussion  by looking at some of the strategic spaces or “fields” targeted by grassroots language activists.  In particular, I consider how minority language activists often work in “political” fields so as to influence state-level governance and policies. In my next post, I will consider how minority language activists also often work in “cultural” fields that involve reaching out to “everday” people and community members in ways that entail the orchestration of festive and educational actions.

Social movements working to resist and reverse processes of minority language loss, such as the Basque movement in France and Spain, the Welsh movement in Great Britain, the Ainu movement in Japan or the Navajo movement in the U.S, have emerged in response to enduring legacies of state-based nationalism founded upon the logic of linguistic assimilation.  Minority language activists challenge the idea that ethnolinguistic diversity is a social problem that must be contained and suppressed. In building these challenge local-level activists, however, need to target specific domains.

In other words, while it is important to generate public debate and discussion about the “rights” of linguistic minorities and the importance of ‘revitalizing’ languages-in-decline so as to alter people’s perceptions and beliefs about minority languages, grassroots language activists ultimately need to influence people’s everyday linguistic behaviors, alter the logic of broader-level language policies and carve out legitimate spaces for minority language speakers within the public sphere. Borrowing from the work of sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu or Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam, the concrete places in which such advocacy and labor take place can be thought of as “fields.” While minority language activists working across different parts of the world target a wide variety of fields, there are two basic categories of fields in which they most often concentrate their energies: political fields with very explicit linkages to state-level structures of governance, and cultural fields with (relatively) little explicit connection to systems of government and the state.

When minority language activists target and work within political fields, they are usually confronting state-level authority over linguistic matters in the public sphere, and striving to re-define state-level language policies. Such efforts can target the state directly or indirectly. Direct attempts often entail efforts to have a minority language legitimated, recognized and normalized at the national or a regional level of governance. Such efforts may often prove difficult for grassroots activists as they necessitate access to the formal arena of policy-making so as to influence legislative and/or executive processes of governance. Activists seeking this path will thus need to forge alliances with influential political parties and insiders. This path can be illustrated in the successful efforts of language activists in Spain to gain official status for Basque, Catalan and Galician during the rise of democracy and regional autonomy in the late 1970s.

Indirect efforts on the other hand, entail trying to influence state-level language policies within particular institutional settings, such as by targeting educational policies or policies concerning mass media. This path may often prove more doable or tangible for grassroots language activists in that it can entail targeting authorities and accessing the political arena at a much more local level of governance where allies might be present and community pressures more influential.  An example of this path can be seen in the successful efforts of Corsican activists during the 1980-90s to gain support from the French state for the teaching of Corsican in public schools and for promoting Corsican language radio and television broadcasts on the island.  

One particular way in which minority language activists operate within political fields, whether directly or indirectly, is by engaging in collective efforts aimed at un-doing or repealing existing policies which contribute to the active suppression and exclusion of minority languages in society. This can be illustrated, for instance, in the concerted efforts of Saami language activists during the 1960-70s to put an end to the Norwegian state’s official ‘Norwegianization’ policies which had been created to assimilate the Saami after the nation’s founding in 1905.  

Another way activists work to influence state-level policies is through organized efforts to prevent proposed policies from coming into existence. An example of this can be seen when Native American language activists took to the streets in cities across Arizona to protest the ‘English Only’ legislations linked to the passing of Proposition 203 in October 2000. Put into effect this policy could have prevented public resources from continuing to be being used for the teaching of indigenous languages such as Navajo in schools and community centers across the state.

And yet another way in which activists often try to influence state-level power is by working to promote the development of laws and policies which explicitly protect and promote the status of minority languages. This is perhaps the most desired path as it entails re-purposing the state from an instrument of linguistic suppression into a mechanism of linguistic expression and recognition. An example of this can be found in the hard-fought victory earned by Ainu language activists in getting the Japanese state to pass a cultural promotion policy in 1997.

While all of these represent distinctive political paths and political fields of action, in reality activists are usually forging multi-pronged agendas and thus taking up many paths and targeting many fields at the same time. In my next post I will consider how activists work in cultural fields so as to generate solidarity among ‘everyday’ people, and bolster the collective identity of minority language speakers.


Filed under Daily Disruption

9 responses to “Fields of Minority Language Activism (Part One)

  1. Dear Kai,
    This is a fascinating essay and I really enjoyed reading it. I like the numerous and diverse examples you cite. One case that I think might serve to bolster your theoretical claim about strategic action fields and minority language advocacy is the Anglophone community in Québec. During the first major wave of nationalism in the 1970s, many Anglophones chose to exit rather than to voice discontent and many who left brought their resources with them, as well as their louder voices (I did a paper on this for Nations and Nationalism you might find interesting). Yet, businesses were important allies to the perceived threat of Francophone nationalism even when political parties (including the Liberals who Anglophones traditionally voted for) were not aggressive enough in protecting Anglo minority rights (for instance, in education). In the second wave in the 1990s, Anglophones (a significantly smaller group than in 1970) had organized an advocacy group that sought to target the government (Alliance Québec), but small municipalities on the Island of Montreal (particularly the western side) who had sizeable Anglophone populations increasingly became important fields of action. It was easier to influence these local municipal governments to protect English (like for instance, street signs and municipal services). This might be perhaps why, when the nationalist government (the Parti Québécois) forced municipalities to merge with the City of Montreal, that many Anglophones were concerned they’d lose their ability to have influence on language even at the local level. When the Liberals took power, they reversed the mergers and held a referendum. Most Anglophone municipalities in the western part of the Island of Montreal) voted to keep their independence from Montreal. Anglophone culture in Québec is often expressed through street signs, universities and other English language institutions, and to a far lesser extent today, businesses since language laws in Quebec have regulated the use of English on commercial signage and in the workplace. But, Anglophones maintain cultural expression through newspapers (The Montreal Gazette and smaller municipal newspapers), TV and radio, which are, I would argue, much more influential in promoting English in Québec, and much harder to curtail. Anglophones and Anglophone advocates have sought many routes to protecting or promoting English: some direct others indirect. The strategic action field for Anglophones is an overlapping of social service organizations, some businesses, the media, some elites in provincial politics, and of course, municipalities. Anglophone advocates interact, often simultaneously, not only with the provincial government, but with businesses, and local municipalities depending on what sort of political opportunities or threats exist. It also raises questions, given the recent political change in Québec, as to whether English is really under attack in the province, whether Anglophones perceive it to be, and if it is, what more can be done to curb the use of English. Will this lead to new Anglophone mobilization?


    • Kai Heidemann

      Thanks for the great comments and for the thoughts on the Anglophone community in Quebec. Its a good point to remember that a language need not be endangered or threatened for language activism to be expressed. Those are also excellent points about businesses as strategic action fields.One advantage these activists have is that incredibly powerful status of English, indeed that is why Francophone community has created such tough policies on the use of French. I appreciate your input!!! Its also nice to know that someone is actually reading these posts 😉 …Kai


      • Your essay definitely caught my eye! It really is very interesting and well written. Yes, the expression that French is “a drop in a sea of English” has often been used to describe Francophones in North America! I agree with you that threat is not always a factor (although it has definitely been a strong motivating factor for activism and advocacy). But you are right that threat need not always be present, or at least it isn’t always an obvious reason behind minority language activism. Many so-called “allophone” communities (where neither French nor English is the mother tongue) have also, to some extent, used municipal governments to promote their community and it is not always clear whether they do so because of threat, or because there is a political, economic, or cultural opportunity, to for instance, create a community center or establish an ethnic-based business association. I am also often reminded by friends in Italy of the movement among many young people calling for the return of local dialects (in some cases, languages) when 50 + years ago, there was a movement in the other direction.


  2. Kai Heidemann

    The Italian case is very interesting. There is some great work by Jilian Cavanaugh, a linguistic anthropologist on the case of Bergascamo. I appreciate the dialogue, it is refreshing and rewarding 🙂


  3. The notion of languages ‘dying’ may sound exaggerated, alarmist, or even irrelevant to many folks. Indeed, the decline and disappearance of minority languages is sometimes framed as an ‘inevitable’ aspect of human evolution with larger ‘more useful’ languages winning out over smaller ‘less useful’ ones. This Darwinistic viewpoint is particularly salient among people who do not speak or identify with minority languages. The all too prevalent view of language loss as an unfortunate but inevitable aspect of ‘progress’ fails to take the human capacity for multilingualism into account, neglects the political dynamics which tend to drive language loss, and glosses over the strong emotional and cultural ties which bind people to language. A primary goal of minority language activists is thus not simply to encourage linguistic minorities to retain and pass on their languages but also to get people in the broader society to think differently about languages.


  4. josephine

    hey, this is a very helpful document, am researching, in an attempt to save minority languages in Zimbabwe


  5. Pingback: Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities

  6. Pingback: Will Québec Anglophones take to the streets? | Mobilizing Ideas

  7. Sawsan

    I second the comment by gold account that one of the key goals of minority language activists is to get society to think differently about languages, and your blog entry is one of the few contributions I’ve come across that attempts to do just that. Minority language activism is a great example of a social movement that many people can’t fathom and can only respond to with “Aren’t there more pressing issues to attend to?” or “Isn’t language quite a petty thing?” As you note in part two, the ubiquity of utilitarianism means that societies East, West and everywhere else have come to view language in primarily instrumental terms; value is increasingly understood as ‘market value’ and the same applies to matters of emotional/affective import.

    On the subject of emotional, I had mixed feelings about David’s comment on Anglophone minority rights in Québec. It is above all the power dynamic that English brings with it everywhere in the world that makes me question the validity of an Anglophone movement. Unfortunately I struggle to put my argument in objective rather than polemical terms, but as it stands the world – Francophone Canadians very much included – is being forced to learn a single language in order to keep afloat economically, which means that with few exceptions, Anglophones of any origin are more accommodated than first-language speakers of any other language wherever they go. If we stick with the example of Canada, suffice to say that Francophones cannot order coffee in Toronto and Vancouver in French and this is the result of the superior status of English globally, not just in the Canadian Anglosphere. If my argument about the ‘arbitrary and unfair English-language hegemony worldwide’ is at all valid – and I’m not insisting that it is – then I don’t think the Anglophone community should oppose so French-language activism in Quebec targeted at the state and its domains (signage, French-medium schools and the like) so vehemently, since life ‘in English’ in Montreal in particular is already conceivable (cf. McGill students).


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