Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: The Ethics of Language Choice in Immigration

Jan 20, 2010

There currently exists no codified general right to move across borders. Immigration is subject to severe restrictions everywhere, and nation-states are unlikely to relinquish the prerogative of legislating who is entitled to temporary or permanent residency in their territories. As long as the political organization of the world hinges on the existence of states, population movements will be regulated.

Yet under current regulations and in the absence of a universal right to move, steadily growing migration streams are flowing across borders. Many of the ensuing problems call for solutions that cannot wait for the world to agree on a universal right to move, some of them of an ethical nature. The question of language choice in the context of international migration is one of them. Does the right to move imply language rights? Whenever people move they carry their immaterial possessions with them, willy-nilly: their creed, their culture, and their language. This kind of baggage is not always welcome.

Full participation in modern life requires a high level of communicative skills. To exercise one's civil rights one must be cognizant of these rights. To acquire information about these rights, one must interact with various agencies and with other citizens. For this interaction to be performed smoothly, the state provides services and resources in the form of documents and competent personnel in a default language, while the individual citizen is expected to have basic knowledge and competence in that language. This is the ideal case. In reality most countries are multilingual in the sense that their populations are composed of several language communities.

Following the French Revolution, multilingualism was downplayed as the idea and ideology of the “national language” took hold across Europe. World War I saw as one of its results the demise of the last multilingual empires, the Hapsburg and the Ottoman. The coextension of language and power became a recognized ideal. That linguistic minorities were repressed or, at best, ignored was the rule rather than the exception.

The idea of minority protection only gradually gained ground after World War II, when minority languages, such as the Celtic languages in Britain and France; Slavic languages and Yiddish in Germany; Basque, Catalan, and Galician in Spain; and Native American languages in the United States, had been reduced to insignificance. The association of language and nation had the mostly unanticipated consequence that national minorities made analogous claims for their languages: If French was symbolically so important for the French, so was Breton for the Bretons. Language thus became recognized as an attribute deserving of protection against discrimination on a par with race, sex, and religion. It was incorporated into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 2):

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

This declaration as well as several other covenants and conventions that have in the meantime established a regime of language rights were drafted first and foremost with national minorities in mind. Decolonization and rapid economic development in the northern hemisphere set off large migration flows that added to the heterogeneity of many developed countries that were built, explicitly or implicitly, on homogenous assumptions. A question that could no longer be sidestepped was whether or not immigrants should be granted the same rights as national minorities and if not, why not.

Language and Migration

European colonialists took for granted not only their entitlement to move about and settle wherever they pleased, but also that they could function in their languages in their new overseas homes. However, the colonial motherlands were less prepared to look at the languages of immigrants from their former dominions from a similar point of view. That Algeria would be administered in French, India in English, and the East Indies in Dutch was a matter of course, but that Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Malay, etc. would be accorded official recognition in France, England, and the Netherlands once former colonial subjects had settled in these countries was much less self-evident. Rather, the assumption of most industrialized countries used to be that, while national minorities had a case for recognition and legal protection of their languages, immigrants should assimilate. Four arguments in support of this position were discussed by Heinz Kloss in a 1971 article for International Migration Review:

Immigration implies a contractual relationship between the destination state and the immigrants who accept and accommodate to the conditions obtaining in the host country. Immigrants know before they arrive that the institutions of their new country operate in a particular language. They must learn that language in order to assimilate.

National Cohesion
A single national language is a vital condition for a modern state to function and to instill in its citizens a sense of identification. This must not be put at risk by making concessions to immigrant languages. This argument is an offshoot of the 19th century nation-state which to date has lost nothing of its (often destructive) potency.

According official status to immigrant languages involves costs for the government. While national minorities can expect such costs to be covered through a redistribution system because they had no choice to opt out of the national language regime, immigrants typically benefit economically from moving to a new country and must not incur costs on their hosts.

Ghetto Prevention
Tolerating or promoting immigrant languages will encourage segregation and the formation of ghettos which bears the risk of political fragmentation and community unrest.

Separately and in various combinations these arguments dominated the public discourse about immigrant language rights for a long time, until it became clear that (a) migration had changed the ethnic composition of many Western countries, and (b) the normative principles of equality and freedom developed in these same countries rendered problematic the distinction between national and immigrant minorities in terms of rights and entitlements. Besides, as many examples of ethnic minorities illustrate, the distinction between national and immigrant minorities is not clear-cut.

There are also arguments in support of the view that immigrants should be permitted to retain and cultivate their language, and perhaps even be given support in so doing. A noticeable shift in the ideological orientation of Western countries during the past two decades, from the mindset of modernism in industrial society that favors standards, uniformity, and certitude toward more tolerance of diversity, pluralism, and the right to choose, has allowed these arguments to attract attention beyond the narrow confines of academic discourse.

Grace Period
Immigrants cannot be expected to quickly gain fluency in the national language of their new country and should not be cut off from information and services, at least for a grace period that allows them to learn the language. White-collar immigrants in executive positions are routinely granted such a grace period (sometimes indefinitely).

The Right to Non-discrimination
Immigrants should have the right to use their language amongst themselves and to transmit it to their children. This implies recognition as a community language because one of the principal social functions of language is to establish rapport with others, in the family and beyond.

Promotion of International Understanding
A reservoir of bilingual citizens can be seen as beneficial to the state, as these citizens can help promote international understanding.

Upon admission, the state accepts responsibility for the well-being of immigrants, which includes unimpeded use of their language.

Human Rights
It has also been argued that recognizing immigrant languages is a matter of human rights. Specifically posited in this discussion is the right to freedom of expression, the right to non-discrimination, and the right of linguistic minorities to use their language with each other. Minority protection and mass migration after World War II have contributed to bringing the political and legal dimensions of language to the fore.

In recent decades many Western countries have shifted toward increased acceptance of minority concerns, a tendency also noticeable in Japan. Since the difference between indigenous and immigrant minorities is one of degree, immigrants have benefited from the principles of equality and freedom and the more accommodating attitude such principles inspire.

A Question of Rights, a Question of Ethics

With regard to language these principles engender a number of intricate problems. Unlike gender and race, language is acquired, but like religion it is highly ideologically charged—not least as a result of the national language ideology—and is considered an important component of identity. UNESCO, for example, has since the 1950s promoted the idea of mother-tongue education. If this is so important, should immigrants be deprived of it?

This raises a number of questions. Two particularly difficult ones are: Should language rights be understood as collective rights or individual rights? and Do language rights entail active endorsement of immigrant languages on the part of the state, or only passive toleration in the private sphere?

In many countries, minority languages with a territorial base (national minorities) enjoy various degrees of recognition. Implicitly at least this amounts to granting minority groups collective rights concerning their language. For a language that lacks a territorial base but is spoken by a significant group of residents, the question is whether this implies similar levels of obligation for the state. In such an event it can be difficult to find a balance between the claims of individual language rights and the interests of the nation-state. The ethic of community may not in every respect concur with the ethic of individual autonomy.

Multilingual states such as Switzerland and Belgium provide many examples of clashes between individual and collective language rights. For instance, internal migrants from one language territory to another are required to accept the territoriality principle. Thus, Francophone Swiss from the western part of the country must accept school instruction in German when they move to the German-speaking part of the country. Under such conditions it is difficult for newly arrived external migrants to claim privileges for their languages.

On the other hand, post-colonial labor migration has in many countries led to a situation where recent immigrants outnumber national minorities by a large measure. For example, Germany's 1.7 million Turkish nationals (excluding persons with double nationality and naturalized Germans of Turkish origin) form a much larger minority than the 60,000 or so Sorbs, only about 20,000 of whom are speakers of Sorbian and none of whom are monolingual Sorbian speakers.

In France the Breton minority of 365,000 is much smaller than the 5 million residents of Arab origin. Similarly, in Japan, there are today many more Portuguese speakers of Japanese extraction than speakers of Ainu, the indigenous minority having been all but completely assimilated since the establishment of a national language regime in Meiji Japan.

Groups and Individuals

If language rights are understood as collective rather than individual, a numerical threshold should be set. The problem is to determine the total size and concentration of a language group to warrant recognition. In practice this varies from one country to another and even within a single country, because often practical rather than principled solutions are sought to accommodate an immigrant group.

Language rights fall into two categories, those that imply passive consent, and those that require active endorsement. Passive consent on the part of the government allows minorities to use their language in all domains where the state does not reserve the right to set the language, for example, in privately organized meetings, newspapers and other publications, religious services, business, and entertainment. Most crucially, they may be allowed to run private schools in their language. Whether or not this right is granted depends on the country's school system, and consent-oriented rights in other domains are likewise subject to political, legal, and social context conditions.

Active endorsement of minority languages, too, comes in various degrees of intensity, ranging from legislation, statute books, public notices, and other official documents available in the minority language, to signage and use of the language for acts of state. The language may be included in the school curriculum at various levels.

One domain in which many countries provide language services is law. It is generally agreed that a fair trial requires the defendant to understand the proceedings. Many states, therefore, provide interpretation and translation of court room proceedings and documents for defendants with limited or no competence in the official language at the government's expense. The rationale for this is that access to justice is a fundamental requisite of the rule of law which should not be restricted on linguistic grounds.

From this principle it does, however, not follow that the state is obliged to promote the language in question in other communication domains, for even a tourist who gets involved in legal proceedings should be entitled to interpretation. The question remains, therefore, whether and to what extent the state should promote languages other than the national or official language(s) spoken by immigrants. Whether language rights should be conceptualized in terms of an ethic of community or of an ethic of individual autonomy remains a question allowing for case-by-case answers at best. In this day and age strong intellectual currents favor the individual. That the state should not restrict individual language choices is widely taken for granted, but whether the state should support individuals to realize their choices is less obvious.

From an ethical point of view, the challenge is to balance individual and public interests. With regard to other problems, the state often categorizes individuals into groups—parents, pensioners, unemployed, etc. In societies where immigration is on the rise and the migrant population is unstable, this principle is not easily extended to immigrants as a group. Because of the various social and cultural conditions of recipient countries, it is difficult to formulate any specific ethical maxims about how states should deal with immigrant languages.

Yet by way of returning to the beginning of these considerations, a general recommendation may be warranted. In countries that attract migrants, everyday life even for unskilled labor requires access to complex and multifarious information. In order to forego the emergence of uninformed and hence underprivileged groups, governments would therefore be well advised to keep the language needs of immigrants in mind. To treat individual immigrants fairly and to prevent collective discrimination are obligations of a just society that the state as its agent cannot disregard.

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