Stephen May
University of Waikato

The Politics of Language Rights: Notes from the Frontline

Developments in political theory and in international law have seen an increasing accommodation of language rights for minority groups in recent years. In political theory, key commentators such as Will Kymlicka (1995) have argued for the recognition of minority rights – a position I have developed further in specific relation to minority language rights (MLR; see May, 2001). In international law, a range of legislative measures, particularly at the supranational level, have begun to address issues of MLR and related language provision, particularly in the educational arena. These developments mark a departure from previous practices which, shaped by the emphasis on universal human rights post 2nd world war and on the tenets of orthodox liberalism, were largely antithetical to MLR.
But before too much can be made of these developments, it is also important to highlight that in many nation-states, there often still remains strong opposition to the establishment and/or extension of language rights for minority groups. A number of tropes are regularly aired in this respect. A key one relates to the issue of social and political stability - that such rights undermine social cohesion and lead to social and political fragmentation. Another is that such rights reinforce an essentialist, romanticist view of culture and language; a third that the recognition of such rights delimits the social and economic mobility of minority language speakers and/or infringes the rights of dominant or majority language speakers.
Drawing on a range of international examples, this keynote lecture will examine these arguments, and their validity. In response, it will outline how the ongoing advocacy of MLR might address/counter these oppositional arguments in order to build a more pluralist, multilingual social and political sphere in many of today’s still resolutely monolingual nation-states.

Kymlicka, W. (1995). Multicultural Citizenship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
May, S. (2001). Language and Minority Rights: Ethnicity, Nationalism and the Politics of Language. London: Longman. Reprinted by Routledge, 2007.