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Doing Justice to and in Linguistics

Thomas McKiernan

Feb 7, 2018 | News

Imagine your language was discriminated against. Imagine that your group was marked as different in society for the language it spoke. Imagine that you had to give up your language and cultural practices because another group in society was dominant. Who would help you?

Season 7 of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies’ TGIF seminars got to a flying start with Associate Professor Tan Ying Ying‘s call for linguists to do justice to their field, as well as in their field, by tending to the matter of linguistic justice.

Linguistic justice is an ideal, achieved when groups of language speakers are officially recognised, are able to maintain dignity, and are not hampered socially or economically owing to the language they choose to speak. Linguistic justice is, or should be, fought for by language planners and makers of language policy. But, the work of language planners and policy makers is ever-challenging. We live in very complicated world. The cloud of globalisation and related issues, such as increasing diversity and multilingualism, the challenge forging post-colonial identities, the normalisation of cross-border migration, a growing sense of trans-nationalism, governmental policies of assimilation and the ongoing death of languages bring many difficulties. Not least is the complication of English’s spread as a global language, taken as an issue by many with the belief that its presence creates an inequality amongst speakers of other languages. Facing such difficulties, the task remains for language planners and language policy makers to improve the lives of their citizens.

As one might expect, the task of language planning and policy is informed by academic understanding of linguistic justice. However, according to Prof. Tan, Division Head, academic understanding of linguistic justice has mainly been a concern of political philosophers. Literature on the matter has involved an unsatisfactory kind of ‘finger-pointing’ to rather intangible notions, such as globalisation, history, colonialism and imperialism. Observation of this raises a number of questions: Can we really put language loss down to such intangible notions? Is it responsible to do so? Is it possible to discover something more concrete and solve the problem? Should academics take concern for languages themselves and their demise, or should concern not be for people and the conditions in which people are put, owing to societal equalities circling language?

With these questions in mind, Prof. Tan poses that linguists have a greater role to play than they have before in the analysis of linguistic justice; thus, linguists have a greater role to play in influencing language planning and policy, to help achieve linguistic justice, such that the failings of previous analysis, to find concrete explanations and solve the issue, are made a success. Moreover, rather than focus on the notion of language rights as previous work has done, the focus of linguists should come to whether the language condition is just for the community of speakers.

To demonstrate how the knowledge, expertise and research of linguists can offer a unique insight into possibilities for the attainment for linguistic justice, Prof. Tan takes the linguistic field of World Englishes as example. The use of varieties of localized Englishes allows speakers to engage with local and global economic markets and allows speakers to maintain dignity, as speakers often find an identity in doing so. Perhaps if World Englishes were supported in a societies’ policies and planning, is it plausible that linguistic justice might be attained? In support of this, Prof. Tan told of a pilot study she has undertaken in Singapore which demonstrated that Tamil and Malay speaking Indian Singaporean and Malay Singaporean university students consider that their speaking of English is much more critical to the building of their Singaporean identity, than Tamil or Malay. Instead of fixating therefore on the ills of English, it might be more fruitful to think about how speakers use languages, English or otherwise, to think about the issue of linguistic justice.

Linguists should partake in this debate, according to Prof. Tan, by collecting empirical evidence to aid philosophical discussion on the matter of linguistic justice. By doing so, linguists can help extend the focus of analysis beyond Europe, where this issue has previously centred upon, take perspective of post-colonial ecologies, focus on speaker agency, consider the demise of language as a process, and encourage cross-disciplinary discussion of the issue.

If in the future your language is discriminated against, your group in society is marked as different for the language it speaks and you have to give up your language and cultural practices because another group in society dominates, it might help to think if linguistic justice has been met.