Human Rights

The ability of communities to develop their own cultures, traditions, and languages free from coercion and outside pressures is now widely understood as a critical human right.

Linguist Leanne Hinton summarizes the human rights connection succinctly:

“The decline of linguistic diversity in the world is linked to the world political economy which invades and takes over the territories of indigenous peoples, threatens the ecosystems in which they live, wipes out their traditional means of livelihood, and (at best) turns them into low-caste laborers in the larger society in which they must now live on the margins.” (Hinton 1999)

Given the evident truth of the above, linguistic diversity must be intimately linked with the parallel issues of economic equality, social justice and land rights. The ability of communities to develop their own cultures, traditions, and languages free from coercion and outside pressures is now widely understood as a critical human right and is enshrined in articles 2, 10, 19 and 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

  • Article 2 – all individuals are entitled to the rights declared without discrimination based on language.
  • Article 10 – individuals are entitled to a fair trial, and this is generally recognized to involve the right to an interpreter if an individual does not understand the language used in criminal court proceedings, or in a criminal accusation. The individual has the right to have the interpreter translate the proceedings, including court documents.
  • Article 19 – individuals have the right to freedom of expression, including the right to choose any language as the medium of expression.
  • Article 26 – everyone has the right to education, with relevance to the language of medium of instruction.

Yet, the basic right for individuals and communities to use and promote their languages still goes unrecognized in many parts of the world. Until as recently as the 1980s, Native American children of many communities were removed from their families and forced to attend boarding schools where they were severely punished for using their own languages. Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of one the largest of these institutions, the Carlisle Industrial School, famously declared in 1892:

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”

Under the sway of this supremacist ideology, many of the indigenous languages and cultures of the United States were brought to the brink of death in a process that could only be considered genocide. Nonetheless, if asked why indigenous languages are rarely heard now, the average American might answer that they were willfully abandoned as tribes entered the so-called “modern world”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout the United States, Canada and Australia, among other countries, language endangerment was primarily the result of the residential school system, a system that had been responsible for the deaths of over 50,000 children in Canada alone and the abuse of many tens of thousands more. A 2001 report by the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada describes this in detail, as cited by Smith (2007).

“…church officials killed children by beating, poisoning, electric shock, starvation, prolonged exposure to sub-zero cold while naked, and medical experimentation, including the removal of organs and radiation exposure. In 1928 Alberta passed legislation allowing school officials to forcibly sterilize Native girls; British Columbia followed suit in 1933. There is no accurate toll of forced sterilizations because hospital staff destroyed records in 1995 after police launched an investigation. But according to the testimony of a nurse in Alberta, doctors sterilized entire groups of Native children when they reached puberty. The report also says that Canadian clergy, police, and business and government officials ‘rented out’ children from residential schools to pedophile rings.”

Clearly, language was but one of the casualties in the protracted war against native people on this continent. Only when this is understood can we begin to understand language revitalization efforts in their proper human rights context. The “why” of endangered languages thus becomes more than a simple desire to preserve linguistic diversity, it becomes a moral obligation.