Linguistic Genocide

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Linguistic Genocide

When the United Nations (UN) undertook preparatory work for what became the 1948 International Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, linguistic genocide as a central aspect of cultural genocide was discussed along with physical genocide as a serious crime against humanity. The ad hoc committee that prepared the Convention specified the following types of acts as examples of cultural genocide in Article III:

Any deliberate act committed with intent to destroy the language, religion or culture of a national, racial or religious group on grounds of national or racial origin or religious belief, such as (1) Prohibiting the use of the language of the group in daily intercourse or in schools, or the printing and circulation of publications in the language of the group; and (2) Destroying or preventing the use of libraries, museums, schools, historical monuments, places of worship or other cultural institutions and objects of the group.

When the UN General Assembly finally approved the Convention, sixteen member nations voted against Article III covering linguistic and cultural genocide (Official Records of the General Assembly, Third Session, Part I, Sixth Committee, 83rd meeting). Among those who "opposed the prohibition of cultural genocide" were Denmark, the United States, and Great Britain. Britain wanted the Convention to be restricted "to the physical extermination of human groups" (Freedman, 1992, p. 89; McKean, 1983, pp. 105–112).

The use of a group's language can be prohibited directly or indirectly. Books in prohibited languages have been burned. Earlier, the use of indigenous and minority groups' languages was often prohibited by physically punishing people, especially children, who used them. Many children, all over the world, have been beaten, left without food, locked in dark places, and forced to drag stones or wear other heavy objects around their necks just for uttering a few words in their own languages in schools. Shame is the tool most frequently used: Schoolchildren speaking a banned language have been made to stand in corners or in front of the class, carry objects showing that they have broken the rules, write a sentence such as "I am an idiot" countless times on a blackboard, or pay fines. In other instances, they have been transformed into traitors and spies, escaping punishment or receiving some small reward if they reveal to their teachers the identity of other children using the forbidden language.

Emphasis on the assimilation of immigrants into the United States led to state laws at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, such as the 1873 Minnesota law requiring that only English be spoken in the classroom. Nebraska prohibited all teaching of modern foreign languages. During and after World War I other states, including Louisiana, Ohio, and Indiana, prohibited the teaching of German. Bans on teaching foreign languages were successfully challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in Meyer v. Nebraska (262 U.S. 390 [1923]). In the early twenty-first century physical punishment is resorted to less frequently to repress the use of a language. Instead, structural arrangements within a country and economic punishment and rewards are utilized. If the children's own language has no place in the curriculum, if it is not the main language of teaching, and if there are no teachers in day-care centers or schools who are legally allowed to use the children's language, its use in "daily intercourse or in schools" becomes de facto prohibited, and the children are forced to assimilate to a dominant majority or foreign language. Most of this prohibition is more sophisticated than the earlier physical punishment for speaking the mother tongue (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000).

In addition to the specific definition of linguistic genocide presented above, two of the five definitions of genocide from the present UN Convention (Articles II[b] and II[e]) apply to the contemporary education of most indigenous and minority peoples:

  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (from Article II[e])
  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group (emphases added) (from Article II[b])

Assimilationist submersion education, in which indigenous and minority children are forced to accept teaching through the medium of dominant languages, also causes mental harm and often leads its students to using the dominant language with their own children later on. Over a generation or two, the children are linguistically and in other ways forcibly transferred to a dominant group. This happens to millions of speakers of threatened languages all over the world. There are no schools or classes teaching children through the medium of the threatened indigenous or minority languages. The transfer to the majority language-speaking group is thus not voluntary: Alternatives do not exist, and parents do not have enough reliable information about the long-term consequences of the various choices available to them. As a consequence, this is not an issue of "language suicide," even though it might at first seem as if the speakers are themselves abandoning their languages.

It is in a child's best interest to learn the official language of his or her country. But learning new languages, including the dominant languages, should not happen subtractively, but additively, that is, in addition to their own languages. Formal education that is subtractive, that is, education that teaches children something of a dominant language at the cost of their first language, is genocidal. This dominant language often is an old colonial language, spoken only by a small but powerful numerical minority (such has been the case, for example, in many African countries). An educational philosophy claiming that minority children learn the dominant language best if they receive most of their education through it is mistaken; minority children educated mainly through the medium of their own language learn the dominant language better than if they are educated only or primarily in the dominant language.

Though some argue that the absence of any deliberate intention in such acts means that these acts are not in contravention of the Convention, a contrary position suggests that if a state organizes minority education contrary to massive research evidence, so that this education results in serious mental harm and forcible transfer of minority children to a dominant group, such acts must be seen as intentional on the part of the state in the same way as any failure to take into account obvious evidence of harm is culpable.

State policies leading to diminishing numbers of languages may be based on the false premise that monolingualism is normal and natural (even though most countries are multilingual), or more desirable, or, at the very least, more efficient and economical even if such policies waste the talents of its citizens and decrease democratic participation. Others believe the extinction of minority languages is inevitable: Modernization leads to linguistic homogenization and only romantics regret it. However, linguistic diversity and multilingualism enhance creativity and are necessary in knowledge-driven societies where diversity is highly valued. Furthermore, some states regard linguistic human rights as divisive on the rationale that minorities will reproduce themselves, and even demand cultural autonomy, economic autonomy, and, in the end, political autonomy or even their own state, thus ultimately leading to the disintegration of nation-states. These erroneous beliefs are an important causal factor behind the death of languages. The prognosis of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is that only 5 to 10 percent of the approximately seven thousand spoken languages in modern times may still be used by the year 2100.

SEE ALSO Genocide; Language


Capotorti, Francesco (1979). Study on the Rights of Persons Belonging to Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. UN Document E/CN.4/Sub.2/384/Rev.1 1991.

Freedman, Warren (1992). Genocide: A People's Will to Live. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein.

McKean, Warwick (1983). Equality and Discrimination under International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove (2000). Linguistic Genocide in Education—Or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Whitaker, Ben (1985). Study of the Question of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Revised. UN Document E/CN.4/Sub.2/1985/6.

Tove Skutnabb-Kangas