Wednesday, September 5, 2012

More Thoughts on this Thorny Language Question.

Continuing on with the problem of language laws and the issues that the election of the PQ raises, I thought I would make a few more comments. These thoughts were inspired somewhat by a quick exchange between myself and the blogger Montreal Simon, a blogger who I enjoy a great deal and whose work deserves respect.

Montreal Simon was eager to defend the tendencies in Quebec to defend, with some degree of fervency, the French language. In his comments to me Simon claims that "leftists sometimes make the mistake of equating language and race. Because while you can't change your colour, you can learn a new language. So its not racism." Now as much as I respect Simon, I find this truly shocking and disturbing. First of all, it is a strangely contradictory argument considering that he makes it in a discourse about the defence of  language. But putting that contradiction aside (to which he is, I believe, driven because of rhetorical necessity), it is also a shocking argument to make in a country in which one of the primary racist efforts  over the past two hundred years or more has been to prevent the continuation of the Indigenous languages. One of the primary motives behind the residential schools was the effort to cut young native people off from the use of their own language. This is because, as the UN has recognized for many years, language is central to culture. Thus the UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states in Article 14 - "Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their  own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning."  This is a very clear recognition that language cannot be separated from culture and cultural identity, and it is therefore clear that it is central to the notion of "race" as people commonly use the word. Thus I believe it is simply wrong to imagine that one can separate linguistic rights from basic human rights or from the protection of a cultural community.

Now lets address the wider issue of linguistic rights. The UN Declaration on Linguistic Rights states in Article 2 "This Declaration takes as its point of departure the principle that linguistic rights are individual and collective at one and the same time." It then continues with a very important observation in which it says that when it defines "the full range of linguistic rights" it includes "not only . . the geographic area where the community lives, but [and this is important] also . . . the social and functional space vital to the full development of the language." In other words language rights must be defended based upon cultural communities in general. An attack on a community's language rights is an  attack on their culture, their community, and their "racial" identity. We must always, therefore, be cautious about restrictions on language rights regardless of where and when we are enacting them.

It based upon these basic assumptions that I believe that Quebec language laws have been de facto racist. Though they have been enacted in a context in which French speakers have been actively attempting to defend their own language (and cultural identity), they have quickly become part of certain racist tendencies among people who have been much too quick to move from protection to insulation, from promotion to control. In a context in which there is a significant linguistic community it is important, even essential, to make room for expressions of that linguistic culture, in education as well as everyday life. Most importantly in this context, it is essential not to make any "official" linguistic competence a central part of political or community participation. Such efforts run the risk of not only being racist but dangerously classist as well.

Now when we address these issues in relation to Quebec it is important to do 2 things. One, we must not under-state the right of Quebecers to maintain the French language. And two, we must not over-state the degree to which other languages communities must be defended within the larger community. I know that there are a number of crazy rightwingers out there who are not necessarily well motivated to defend their own linguistic rights. However, having said this I have deep concerns over questions of minority language education rights, and participation in the larger community. And I think anyone who believes in such rights should be concerned.

Within fifty years or so latinos will out number anglophones in a number of US states. It will then be within their ability to actually enact laws that restrict English. I have no fear that this will happen but if it did I think it would be as objectionable as when anglophones have enacted so-called "English Only" laws. The spanish language is thriving in the US despite the racism of many whites, and it does so even when it is surrounded by a sea of English speakers and anglophone power. Spain maintains a number of distinct linguistic communities in official and non-official capacities. They have done so through active cooperation, understanding, and concerted efforts. In some regions of Spain you can speak and go to school in Catalan, but you can also actively use Castellano in any way you see fit.

In the final analysis I believe this for certain - if you need police to compel people to not use a certain language you have already lost your fight.

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