July 2018

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In Barcelona in June 1996, writers and NGOs drafted the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights to protect and promote the individual, societal and national linguistic rights of users of endangered and marginalised languages.

The idea originated with Francisco Gomes de Matos of the Federal University of Pernambuco (Recife, Brazil) in 1984. Trained in linguistics, language teaching and law, he is now Professor Emeritus, and a core member of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies. Gomes de Matos has long been concerned with the rights and responsibilities of language users, the legal implications for education, and applied peace linguistics.

Article 10.2 of the Declaration “considers discrimination against language communities to be inadmissible, whether it be based on their degree of political sovereignty, their situation defined in social, economic or other terms, the extent to which their languages have been codified, updated or modernized, or on any other criterion.”

In the Caribbean where English is the official language, there has been relatively little focus on language rights outside of education. However, in Haiti, Kreyòl became co-official with French in 1987, and in Aruba, Papiamento became official in 2003. The point to note is that there are many speakers of non-official languages who possess a special, rich heritage precisely because of the cultural uniqueness of their language. Yet too many of them are discriminated against or casually excluded from easy access to their own country’s services or opportunities because they do not speak the mainstream official tongue.

The UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity) includes the culture and language of the Maroon Heritage of Moore Town (Jamaica), and the Language, Dance and Music of the Garifuna (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua). UNESCO has supported the UWI Caribbean Indigenous and Endangered Languages project, and the RDI Fund supports the Digital Documentation of Heritage Languages of Trinidad & Tobago.

The Society for Caribbean Linguistics (SCL) has championed Caribbean linguistic rights for many years. Prof Hubert Devonish, former SCL President and Director of the Jamaican Language Unit (JLU) and the International Centre for Caribbean Language Research (ICCLR), was the principal organizer of the Charter on Language Policy and Language Rights in the Creole-Speaking Caribbean (Kingston 2011), bringing together governors-general, educators and more to discuss language rights, language policy and planning.

In 2013, the Hilo Resolution (Hawai’i) focused on the rights of native speakers and signers of languages everywhere, and the need for proper representation before governments. Many languages are minority or minoritised languages, that is, they are in either in the numerical or sociopolitical minority. The latter are even majority languages, but marginalised. The users of these languages are usually less socioeconomically powerful than the speakers of their countries’ official languages that usually have world status. The native speakers of official languages are often in the numerical minority yet have disproportionate privilege in postcolonial countries.

The HiLo resolution and TT language groups

In T&T, there are historically four groups who fall into the categories mentioned in the Hilo Resolution: 1) our autochthonous or indigenous peoples; 2) the many monolingual (or varilingual) T&T English Creole speakers (even if they are passively competent and passively bilingual in Standard(ised) English); 3) monolingual or bilingual speakers of our immigrant heritage languages, and their descendants, and 4) the deaf community.

The ancestors of all these groups have historically been or are currently socio-economically subordinate and underrepresented in terms of power sharing. The Anglicisation Policy of the mid-19th century, and other less obvious policies, contributed in no small measure to these issues, and to problems in education, the pathway to economic sustainability and stability. Some such language speakers and their descendants were able to overcome these difficulties, but many others have not. For some, their languages and cultures are still being disrespected and belittled, misunderstood and mishandled, or eroded and forgotten.

UNESCO celebrates International Mother Language Day (IMLD) every 21 February. The 2018 theme was “Linguistic Diversity and Multilingualism Count for Sustainable Development”. In his IMLD address, Dr Michel Kenmogne of Cameroon, Director of SIL International, poignantly noted:

“Over the years, I had the painful experience of needing to deny myself and the language I spoke at home in order to access education and to enjoy better socioeconomic status. This is the tragedy of the speakers of many of the lesser-known languages of the world… However, the large majority of these people end up living in the margins of society. They drop out of the school system. They are the casual labour workforce in their nations.”

Intangible linguo-cultural heritage should be documented before the users of these languages suffer or disappear. Like ecological loss, language loss and culture loss are often irreparable. On the other hand, like a balanced ecology where all species should be protected if possible, all of our languages should be treated respectfully, and documented for posterity.

It is important that all language groups be researched and understood. This is so that every citizen can be afforded the best of educational and professional opportunities, and be fully assisted in the health and legal systems.

Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights

The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights supports the equal rights of all language users (speakers and signers) throughout the world, especially those users of endangered languages. All languages are covered covered by the Declaration, including ancestral and ritual languages.

Articles 23-30 of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights are of particular interest to the Faculty of Humanities and Education of The UWI (particularly Linguistics and Education). Article 25 focuses on “properly trained teachers, appropriate teaching methods, textbooks, finance, buildings and equipment, traditional and innovative technology”. Article 26 notes that “All language communities are entitled to an education which will enable their members to acquire a full command of their own language ... as well as the most extensive possible command of any other language they may wish to know.”

Article 27 includes our indigenous peoples and a number of ethno-religious groups, and states that “All language communities are entitled to an education which will enable their members to acquire knowledge of any languages related to their own cultural tradition, such as literary or sacred languages which were formerly habitual languages of the community.”

Our heritage languages are not only of the past; they offer insight into who we are as a people today, how we think, function and see the world. Our languacultures, then and now, must be part of the call for reparations, as they at the very heart of our nationhood and selfhood.