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March 1998 - Issue No. #29 (p.16 - 17)

The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights

by Catherine Walter

(Former President, IATEFL, UK)

A large number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has produced a Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights to be submitted tothe United Nations for adoption as an International Convention.

What have linguistic rights got to do with EFL? David Crystal writes of how language contributes both to the identity and intelligibility of an individual. Everyone has a right to a language identity: to use a language for full participation as a member of a linguistic community. Linguistic identity can, of course, be a complex issue, and people may belong to more than one linguistic community. As citizens of a country, they may use the official language(s) of that country and claim a national identity; but they may also be members of an ethnic community which uses a different language and has a distinct cultural identity. Both the national language and the community language may express aspects of the individual's identity, as well as making the individual intelligible within the nation and the community. In other cases an individual may feel that identity is most clearly expressed by a regional or ethnic community language.

Language does not always imply identity. People also use language to achieve intelligibility in a wider community than their own ethnic, regional or national one. For an individual who identifies strongly with an ethnic or regional language community, a national language may be more a means of intelligibility than a feature of identity. Likewise, because of the role of English as a language of international communication, many EFL instructors are teaching English to learners whose aim is to achieve international intelligibility.

Considerations of identity and intelligibility have implications for our English teaching. In teaching English pronunciation, for example, I would aim to help my learners achieve a pronunciation that is intelligible to both native speakers and non-native international speakers of English. I would not, unless specifically requested, aim to help learners achieve "perfect" British or American accents: people often feel that how they speak is a part of their national or community identity, and, consciously or not, may choose to retain an accent that affirms that identity. Gillian Brown recommends that we should differentiate for our learners between a native-speaker pronunciation that the learner hears and a target pronunciation (for Spanish EFL learners, for example, an educated and intelligible Spanish speaker of English) that the learner aims for.

The World Federation of Modern Language Associations (FIPLV) has been concerned about language rights and the identity / intelligibility question for many years. FIPLV's statement of Fundamental Principles for a Universal Declaration on Language Rights, formulated in Pecs (Hungary) in 1991, sets forth the rights of every individual to learn and be taught up to three languages:

  • The language with which s/he and her/his family most readily identify.

  • The official language(s) of the State, nation or region where s/he lives.

  • At least one further language in order to extend his/her social, cultural, educational and intellectual horizons and to enhance international understanding.

The FIPLV Pecs Declaration sees identity and intelligibility in a complementary relationship. This is in contrast to the view that the teaching of a language of international intelligibility, like English, is a threat to community or national languages; a viewpoint not borne out by the facts. David Crystal writes: "Whether Sorbian survives in Germany or Galician in Spain has to do with the local political history of those countries, and with the regional dominance of German and Spanish respectively, and bears no immediate relationship to the standing of German or Spanish on the world stage. Nor is it easy to see how the arrival of English as a global language could directly influence the future of these or most other minority languages". But people do not always base their opinions and actions on facts. As David Graddol puts it, "English is rarely the main, or direct cause of language loss, but its global high profile and close association with social and economic changes in developing countries make it a target for those campaigning against the destruction of cultural diversity which language extinction implies". It is important, then, that teachers of English understand the facts and support the complementarity of "identity languages" and "intelligibility languages".

The current draft of the Universal Declaration has several problems:

  1. Because the draft is based on the idea of "language communities", little account is taken of the language rights of individuals. In his IATEFL'95 conference plenary, Christopher Brumfit outlined the need to recognize the right of the individual "to practise the language of one's choice with other members of the speech community" and the notion of choice as opposed to the imposition of a linguistic identity. But the individual plays only a very minor part in the draft of the Universal Declaration. For example, in the section on Education, all the points are drafted in terms of "language communities" while the right of individuals to learn languages for international intelligibility gets only an oblique mention.
  2. The draft defines "language communities" as being historically established in a territory, but the definition of "community" is rather restrictive. It fits the situation of a language like Catalan, spoken for hundreds of years in a well-defined territory within a country with another official language; but other language situations are not covered well. Although nomads are recognised as having language communities, a different term, "language group", is used for people like immigrants, refugees, deported persons and members of diasporas. "Language groups" in the draft do not have the same rights as "language communities". This seems to mean that "groups" such as the large and long-standing Greek-speaking population in Australia or the Turkish guest workers in Germany fall into a second-class category. There is a basic problem in that the draft defines neither "territory" nor "historical". How big is a territory, and how long does a language group have to exist there before their language qualifies as being "historically spoken"? Have Greek speakers in Australia been there long enough to be a "community" rather than a "group"? It would be appalling if this Declaration, intended to safeguard linguistic rights, were framed so as to licence governments to bulldoze small, recently implanted groups and individuals.

  3. No endorsement is given to the situation in countries where a language (sometimes an ex-colonial language like English or French) is used as the language of choice for official transactions, to avoid giving any one of many historically established languages priority over the others.

What can we do?

It is very possible that the United Nations General Assembly will eventually adopt a Convention embodying a Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. Do you agree with the principle of such a declaration? Do you want to help make it a more inclusive document which takes into account individual rights, the rights of all sorts of linguistic groups, and the reality of cultural differences and choices? If so, now is the time to make your voice heard.

  • Find out about the proposed declaration from [Link no longer active] or by post: Conseil Scientifique de la DUDL, Rocafort, 242 bis, SP-08029 Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain.

  • Get a copy of the FIPLV statement of Fundamental Principles for a Universal Declaration on Language Rights by e-mailing me, putting "Pecs Declaration" in the header of your message; or by sending a self-addressed envelope to the IATEFL office.

  • Read Brumfit's article in the IATEFL'95 Conference Report, as well as David Crystal's and David Graddol's books.

  • Write to your country's National UNESCO Commission. You can find the address at: or by contacting: Division of National Commissions, UNESCO, 7 place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP, France.

  • Let me know what you think and what action you have taken by writing to me at IATEFL headquarters or e-mailing me at AIETFL (put "Linguistic Rights" in the header of your e-mail).


Brown, G. (1994) Lecture at the Research Centre for Applied Linguistics, Cambridge University.

Brumfit, C. (1995) People's Choice and Language Rights. In D. Baker (Ed.), IATEFL Annual Conference Report. 1995.

Crystal, D. (1997) English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Graddol, D. (1997) The Future of English? London: The British Council.


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