Language Rights … and Wrongs

Should it be a human right to be able to use your native language wherever you are? Should states protect linguistic minorities, even when resources are right? What is the best strategy to help people see that linguistic diversity is a good thing? These were just some of the subjects covered in a talk by Mairéad Nic Craith from the University of Ulster on Linguistic Heritage and Language Rights as part of the Studies in European and International Cultures and Societies research seminar series.

Mairéad gave us a whistle-stop tour of international and European laws and agreements that were meant to improve or defend language rights in one way or another.  From the UN General Assembly to the Council of Europe, it seems that the subject of languages has never been far from the political scene, a trend which continues to this day.

However, it appears that language rights are extremely easy to get wrong. Mairéad pointed out that, even in Europe, there seems to be an official line drawn between European languages (which get all the rights they could ask for) and non-European languages (which don’t). It also seems to be the case that while languages get rights, language speakers and communities might not. How this actually works was a subject for debate in the room.

The creation of laws to uphold these rights is by no means an easy task either. In fact, academics are split over whether it is better to push states to sign tough, legally binding treaties or to woo them with much vaguer ones. As Mairéad suggested, while the former might seem like a good idea, the success rate with the latter is much greater.

Mairéad’s experience with Irish and Ulster Scots led her to question the audience on the place of Scots here in Scotland. The answer to this question was to question what Scots actually is. It seems that most Scots don’t know the difference between Scots and the bewildering array of accents our nation has to offer. Perhaps readers of this blog can fill us in.

As always, at Heriot-Watt, the question session after the talk was lively. We discussed Scots, the implementation of language rights and political problems that can arise when the rights are put in place. It seems that, while the idea of language rights seems good in theory, the practice is fraught with difficulties, as readers of this blog will probably already know.

So, what about you? Where do you stand on the question of language rights? Should everyone have the right to do business, access services and petition the government in their own language? What if people speak perfect English, should they still be entitled to interpreting and translation in their “other” languages? What is Scots? Do you speak it?

Feel free to leave your views in the comments section