What is the right to linguistic freedom?


Linguistic rights are the rights of both an individual and a collective to communicate in a language of their choosing. The 1996 Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights was a document created to elaborate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with specific linguistic focus. In the Girona Manifesto, a concise version of this document, it is stated:

‘Different languages and different ways of speaking are not only means of communication, they are also the mileu (a person’s social environment)  in which humans grow and cultures are built.’ This means that languages are crucial in the development of humans and human culture. The right to use your own language is viewed as a fundamental human right, and any infringement on this is not allowed. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: ‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community.’  Culture and language are tied together, and so denying someone their language is the same as suppressing their culture.


Colonialism and Minority Languages


One effect of colonialism throughout Africa was the marginalisation of minority languages. Minority languages are languages spoken by a smaller group of people in a nation. They are important as they represent the culture of that group and help contribute to the cultural diversity of a country. During years of colonial occupation, a European language often replaced a native African language as the main language of law and official documents. This means that they removed minority languages from being means of education.They were also removed from other official purposes. This established a negative attitude towards learning in indigenous African languages. This continues today, where most education is only conducted in a national language. During colonial times, the foreign language became a means to achieving career success. This often resulted in a rejection of indigenous languages and their culture.

The various languages present in a country make up an important part of its culture, and for this reason they must be preserved. It is important to maintain all of these languages as they are a reflection of the country’s past and therefore its culture. According to the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, the right to use and protect one’s language is a fundamental right. The marginalisation of minority languages in colonial times goes against this.


National Languages


A national language is a language that a nation has chosen to be the official language for administrative affairs. For example, in Nigeria the languages are Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, using English and French for some administration. Some people argue that the existence of many national languages interferes with national unity. However, national unity means a recognition of these languages and the cultures of its speakers. It is important to recognise all languages as no language is more important than another. National unity is more sustainable if the rights of minority groups to their own languages are guaranteed.