Language Education Policy Studies
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          Linguistic Human Rights (LHR) 

Human Rights according to the United Nations after World War II were political and did not include cultural, linguistic or economic rights. The draft of a declaration of Linguistic Rights had been prepared but the U.N. committee decided to drop them because it was felt the topic was controversial and required further thought. In 1966, Human Rights were expanded to include the latter, but have not included linguistic rights. A group of scholars including Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, Robert Phillipson, and Teresa McCarty since the early 1980’s have been arguing for the inclusion of language in human rights and other legal arenas by citing existing statutes on genocide such as the “forcible transfer of children to another group”, because education does this.


Some scholars argue that human rights are not universal but vary by culture. There is an academic division between those who support language rights and those who call for an infinite number of socially situated and contextualized studies, maintaining that individuals and communities decide on their own and can resist linguistic imperialism even with the dominant language such as English. (See Language Discrimination; Variations; Social Justice and Social Practice.) This may bring up a question of power. Are the power holders the ones inventing languages only to erase them? Or only erasing? Can languages and rights be protected as part of re-inventing?


Around four decades of research demonstrates many arguments- related to self-esteem, identity, cultural rootedness, and educational achievement- that support the benefits and claims of linguistic human rights, and possibilities through schools. On the other hand, certain sociolinguistics say that the whole discourse of language rights needs to be deconstructed- and that the discourses are only emotional and moral (see Defining Language; Endangerment).


There are language rights as well as language rights in education. The link between culture and language, language and education is not agreed upon. Perhaps the linguistic rights and educational sovereignty could be reified rather than the languages.


The 2007 Charter of Indigenous Rights included language. The four countries most responsible for linguistic and cultural genocide (Bear Nicholas, 2009) initially refused to sign it, although, in conclusion—the official declarations of rights do not necessarily ensure rights in practice.

linguistic human rights
Tove Skutnabb-Kangas

A few references:


  • Dunbar, R., & Skutnabb-Kangas (2007). Forms of Education of Indigenous Children as Crimes Against Humanity? Expert paper written for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
  • Hornberger, N. (1998). Language policy, language education, language rights: Indigenous, immigrant, and international perspectives. Language in Society (27), 439-458.
  • Pennycook, A. &. Makoni, S. B. (2006). Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Phillipson, R., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1995). Linguistic rights and wrongs. Applied Linguistics, 16(4): 483-504.
  • Phillipson, R. & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2012). Getting language rights right. A response to Makoni. Journal of Multicultural Discourse, 7(1), 29-35.
  • Rubio-Marin, R. (2003). Language rights: exploring the competing rationales. In W. Kymlicka & A. Patten (Eds.), Language rights and political theory (pp. 52-79).
  • Spolsky, B. (2004). Language Rights. In B. Spolsky, Language policy: Key Concepts in Sociolinguistics (pp.113-132). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2012). Linguistic Human Rights. In L. Solan & P. Tiersma (Eds). Oxford Handbook on Language and Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 235-247.
  • Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2006). Language policy and linguistic human rights. In T. Ricento (Ed.), An introduction to language policy: Theory and method (pp.  273-291). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2008) Human Rights and Language Policy. In N. Hornberger & S. May (Eds). Encyclopedia of Language & Education. Springer.
  • Wee, Lionel (2011). Language without Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Yacoub, J. (2005). For an Enlargement of Human Rights. Diogenes, 52(2), 79-99.


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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Harrison, K. M. (2013). Linguistic Human Rights. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date).