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.