Readings on Language Rights as Human Rights

The Global Language Justice Reading Group hosted Dr. Elsa Stamatopoulou on December 6, 2017, in order for her to discuss her work on language rights and indigenous peoples’ rights. We also discussed her piece “Language Rights as Part of Cultural Rights” and a piece by Moria Paz on “The Failed Promise of Language Rights: A Critique of the International Language Rights Regime.” What follows are some of the questions from that discussion — bibliography at the end.


In her piece on “Language Rights,” Dr. Stamatopoulou notes that “the right to be educated in one’s mother tongue has been on the international human rights agenda since the 1950s, but controversies intensified in the 1990s; the financial implications of multilingualism have further exacerbated the existing controversies and demands that minority schools be made “free”, i.e. state-financed, are made but seldom granted (9).

pile of covered books
Enforcing multilingualism in education is, for many, a Sisyphean endeavor, especially when it comes to the question of financial cost (see Paz and Moria).  Photo by Pixabay on

I wonder why we think about education when we think about language rights. If education is the keystone issue, how does the educational model affect how we frame the issue of language rights? How is a classroom different from a courtroom? — to reference other environments, or ecosystems, in which language rights seem to be most visible. What are other environments that might highlight or reframe this issue?

In one case involving mother-tongue education, Paz cites a father’s wish that “his children should resemble him culturally”. What does this mean? If we are to take seriously the narratives of minority language speakers themselves, how do we reconcile this desire with an educational policy (or do we)? How might a concern for language justice help us to rethink education in the context of minority communities?


Dr. Stamatopoulou concludes her piece by identifying a “gap, an inadequacy, of international standards or guidelines on language rights” (13). Even when such limited standards exist, as we see from Paz’s piece, there is an additional gap between the standards and those who enforce them, with courts taking what she calls a “narrow, pragmatic” approach that, notably, has never relied on Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which explicitly recognizes the right of minorities “to enjoy culture and to use language”) to make a ruling. Instead, it prefers to utilize other statutes which are not positively tied to language or cultural rights.

icra iflas piled book
“Language rights,” in as much as they exist, are almost never relied upon to make an argument in a court of law.  What are the implications of this? Photo by Pixabay on

This provokes the obvious question—are states, or courts the best agents to protect linguistic rights? If, as Paz argues, courts have thus far turned minority language rights into a “right to be assimilated on fair terms into one’s state,” what do we do when other rights contradict language rights—or, when language rights contradict other human rights?

Units of Analysis

Finally, Paz talks considerably about the ability of the accused to “understand” the language of criminal proceedings. How do we evaluate understanding? Understanding between whom or what? What are our units of analysis when we think of language rights, are they different from our units of analysis when we talk about language period, and if so, how do we measure diversity? Should we talk about languages or sublanguages, idiolects, dialects, and accents? Individuals, or groups? Languages, or speakers, or writers?

four person standing at top of grassy mountain
How does one measure language, after all?  Photo by Helena Lopes on

Biology provides us with a rich hierarchic taxonomy—Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species—by which we measure diversity. But one wonders whether the connection can be so easily extended so that languages are species.  How might languages reproduce, for instance? These uncertainties push us to explore the constellation of terms surrounding languages in various discourses, including human rights (Dr. Stamatopoulou mentioned terms like culture, vulnerability, dignity).  Our conception of linguistic rights, and how they inflect human rights in general, is at stake.

By Chloe Estep, Graduate Student Fellow, Sawyer Seminar on Global Language Justice, Ph.D. Candidate in East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University.  The Reading Group on Global Language Justice meets monthly at Columbia University.


Paz, Moria. “The Failed Promise of Language Rights: A Critique of the International Language Rights Regime.” Harvard International Law Journal, Winter 2013, 157-218.

Stamatopoulou, Elsa. Cultural Rights in International Law: Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Beyond. Boston: Leiden, 2007.

Stamatopoulou, Elsa. “Language rights as part of cultural rights.” Language Revitalization in the 21st Century: Going Global, Staying Local Conference. New York City, 2012. Speaking notes.

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