LING 540: Language Policy: Introductory Remarks

Harold F. Schiffman, Instructor


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  1. One definition of Policy: `` A definite course or method selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions."

    Language Policy has to do with decisions (rules, regulations, guidelines) about the status, use, domains, and territories of language(s) and the rights of speakers of the languages in question.

  2. Different Dimensions:

    1. Covert vs. Overt Policies:

      • Covert policies make no mention of any language in any legal document, administrative code, etc. Guarantees of linguistic rights must be inferred from other policies, constitutional provisions, `the spirit of the law', etc. (Implicit, unstated, common-law, de facto, traditional, customary, grass-roots, etc.) Covert policies may be subversive or collusive.

      • Overt policies state explicitly the rights of any or all linguistic groups to the use of their language in whatever domains they specify. Overt policies strongly guarantee the freest tolerance policy. (Explicit, specific, de jure.)

      • Overt and Covert policies are like an iceberg: the tip of the iceberg is the overt part; the underwater part is the covert part. To continue this metaphor, the whole thing is immersed in a sea that is the linguistic culture in question.

        Some researchers are uncomfortable with the idea of culture, maintaining that culture is often seen as 'deterministic,' or 'a prison' and that we act as if people are 'imprisoned' in their cultures. I do not hold this, but I do believe that social scientists have thrown out the baby with the bath water in jettisoning 'culture'. Read more about this here.

    2. Promotive vs. Tolerance Policies.

      • Promotive policies encourage the use of (a) particular language(s) by constitutional, administrative and legal guarantees; devote and/or guarantee resources (money, personnel, space) for a language; specify and reserve domains of use (school, courts, administration) for a language. May be covert: covert promotion policies de facto promote one (or more) language without explicitly mentioning it/them; overt promotion policies name the language(s) in legal code, constitution, etc. and what its rights and territories (or the rights and territories of its/their speakers) shall be, etc.

      • Tolerance Policies allow the use of certain language(s) usually without explicitly devoting resources, time, space etc. to them; no domains reserved. Can also be covert (not mentioning anything) or overt (openly stating and naming which language will be tolerated).

      • Mixed: Promotive policy may still tolerate language(s) of minority, to ensure smooth functioning of polity/burocracy: e.g. signs in Spanish or other languages in urban transportation systems, or for safety purposes; driver license testing in various minority languages in some states, but not in others; social security information in many languages in US; translation provided in court cases; different languages on the national currency etc. (Note that in this Chinese currency, some languages and scripts other than Chinese appear in very small print; in India, in contrast, many languages and scripts are used.) Schools may use minority languages for `bilingual' education at their own expense, or paid for by parents. Few or no public resources are used to promote these languages, only tolerate them.

    3. Egalitarian vs. Restricted. Policy may treat languages even of a small minority as totally equal, always placing both/all languages on equal footing, addressing all citizens as if bilingual, etc.

    4. Jurisdictional Limitations. Polity may tolerate/promote certain languages only in restricted areas; e.g. in US BIA, Dept. of Agriculture, Soc. Sec. Administration, Military, State Department, CIA, Treasury, Census. Right to use a language may be reserved for, or restricted to a particular function within the polity, e.g. religious, military, burocratic, data-gathering. Or the right may be guaranteed only for a segment of the population, e.g. adults (but not children).

      • Personal Rights. State may allow (even guarantee) individuals the right to use minority language in certain situations. The right is portable and belongs to the person wherever he/she goes and interacts with organs of the state.

      • Territorial Rights. Right to use a particular language may be restricted to a particular territory within the polity, or even certain domains within a restricted territory.

    5. De facto vs. De jure policies. Related to overt/covert distinction. Policies may de jure pertain to one language , but in actuality the de facto use of some other language is tolerated. School policy may de jure reserve domain for Language 1, but de facto Language 2 is widely used, or merely tolerated.

  3. Interdisciplinary Nature of Language Policy Study. The following disciplines have been interested in `language' in certain ways that have reprecussions for language policy, for the reasons mentioned; our task in this course is to try to integrate these approaches to see how they interact with policy toward language and what their influence is on overt and covert policy formation.

    Anthropological Linguists Have been concerned with interaction between language and culture, and the central role of language in the transmission of culture. In a recent description of what she called the `heart' of linguistic anthropology, Leila Monaghan (Contributing Editor, Society for Linguistic Anthropology ) stated that `` ``At the heart of linguistic anthropology is the assumption that language is inextricably connected to all facets of human life. We see language as a privileged position from where to view the transition from biological talents (our ability for making sounds and gestures, sense and nonsense) to the social worlds of conversations, institutions, communities and nations. ... Current linguistic anthropology focuses on a number of closely related issues, including the interrelationship of language and context ..., how ideologies of language provide a window into the intersections between language structures and social systems ..., the construction of authority through language ... and how information on language use throws light on the institutions we live within." (Monaghan 1996)

    Though most linguistic anthropologists do not refer to what they do as policy study, in fact they are often concerned with social `rules' (also known as social norms, `taboos') or patterns of behavior that are reflected in linguistic behavior, such as politeness, ways of speaking, terms of address, respect, gender, and many other kinds of linguistic control that societies exhibit. Linguistic anthropology is now under fire from some quarters for its supposed `orientalism' and participation in the establishment of colonial hegemony, and structuralism is also suspect; but much work in this area still has validity and can probably be `recuperated' (rehabilitated, cleansed of its `orientalism') and used for its insights into behavior of various sorts.

    Education: Some overlap with Social Psychology; concerned mainly with educational aspects of bilingualism---measurement of school performance of bilingual children (especially their verbal ability), disfunction, implementation of curriculum, training of teachers for bilingual education, as well as concern for how children learn best when more than one language is used in education, etc. Strong focus on seeing bilngualism not as a burden or handicap, but as a resource.

    Geography: Concerned with human geographical aspects of language and ethnicity---spread and distribution of language on a territory, diffusion, demographic aspects of language differentiation, measurement and mapping of ethnolinguistic features, census data, etc.

    Jurisprudence: Until quite recently, legal studies were concerned only with case law that involved language, such as Supreme Court cases like Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) or Lau v. Nichols. Most legal scholarship in this country did not place the study of language and legal problems involving language above any other kind of discriminatory practice.

    Recently, legal scholarship has developed to focus on the notion of social norms and how concern with or observation of social norms operates to condition certain kinds of behavior, irrespective of laws or of the presence of legal authority. As Posner (2000:5) puts it,

    ``Most people refrain most of the time from anti-social behavior even when the law is absent or has no force. They conform to social norms.
    He also defines social norms as ``non-legal mechanisms of cooperation."
    ``Social Norms describe the behavioral regularities that occur in equilibrium when people use signals to show that they belong to the good type. Social Norms are thus endogenous; they do not cause behaviors but are the labels that we attach to behavior that results from other factors. Social Norms should be distinguished from behavioral regularities that emerge in cooperative relationships simply because they are value maximizing."
    [HS: more on this later; by `good type' is meant the person who refrains from anti-social behavior; a.k.a. the upstanding `law-abiding citizen' who does the `right thing' (even if no laws exist or if the force of law is absent.)] For language policy, I see a parallel between social norming and the development of non-official, implicit, covert policy, behaviors related to language that are not determined by overt policy or language laws, etc.

    For a bibliography of language and legal issues, look here. This bibliography also deals with issues of forensic linguistics i.e. how language and linguistics can be involved in court disputes, helping to exonerate or inculpate people by using linguistic evidence.

      Work-place discrimination. Another more recent development is in the area of workplace discrimination (people punished for speaking a language other than English on the job), and there have been a number of cases that have been decided in favor of the non-English worker(s). Another issue is drivers' license testing; one case on this ( Alexander v. Sandoval, actually went to the Supreme Court, but the Court refused to hear it. I have written something about this here.

      Constitution vs. constitution A recent article in the New Yorker (September 12, 2005) has an article about Justice Anthony Kennedy, who makes a distinction between the Constitution (with a capital C), and the constitution, without.

      "There is also the constitution with a small "c," the sumtotal of customs and mores of the community. [...] The closer the big 'C' and the small 'c', the better off you are as a society."
      Later the writer refers to the small "c" as 'the evolving standards of the community" which of course means the opposite of "strict constructionism."

    Political Science: Concerned traditionally with polity; law; voting behavior, and political behavior. Interested in persistence of linguistic ethnicity as a political phenomenon: alliances, elite formation, political economic reasons for language maintenance or shift. Tend to focus on number crunching and whatever can be quantified, and ignores what cannot be quantified.

    Social Psychology: Concerned with study of psycho-social aberrance, identity, bilingualism and its effect on educational performance and intelligence; interested in attitudes about languages and people who use them, and how this affects behavior and policy.

    Sociolinguistics: Concerned with sociolinguistic variability, language behavior, (some overlap with `anthropolitical linguistics',) non-standard languages (creoles and pidgins), diglossia, hierarchical linguistic behavior, history of language(s), code-switching; concern about bilingualism as interactive codes, linguistic contact phenomena, spread of linguistic features, mapping of dialect features. Some overlap in concerns with Soc. of Language and Social-Psychology.

    Sociology of Language: Concerned traditionally with social roles and quantification of data about group behavior. Concerned with language maintenance, language loyalty, group boundaries, interaction with other social factors, bilingualism as a group or social phenomenon. Language shift, language death. Asks the question ``Who speaks what to whom, where, and when?"

  4. While I'm at it, here's an interesting article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on 'unwritten, tacit' rules about investigation in science:

    Friday, February 11, 2005

    Scientists Censor What They Study to Avoid Controversy and 'Lunatic-Proof' Their Lives, Researchers Find


    Unwritten social and political rules affect what scientists in many fields study and publish, according to a paper published today in Science, and those constraints are even more prevalent than formal constraints, such as government or university regulations. The paper is based on interviews with 41 researchers at top academic departments in fields such as neuroscience, drug and alcohol abuse, and molecular and cellular biology. The interviews were conducted by Joanna Kempner, Clifford S. Perlis, and Jon F. Merz, of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Brown University, and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively. They asked the researchers if they or any of their colleagues had ever refrained from doing or publishing research.

    Almost half of those interviewed said they felt constrained by formal controls, but the respondents said they felt even more affected by informal ones. Many of the scientists interviewed said they had found out their research was "forbidden knowledge" only after papers reporting their results had been published. One respondent told the interviewers that a colleague's graduate student had a job offer rescinded when the would-be employer found out the student had worked on a study of race and intelligence. Another researcher stood accused of "murderous behavior" after doing an anonymous survey in which he was incapable of intervening when respondents said they were infected with HIV and were having sex without a condom.

    Many other researchers said they simply chose not to do studies, or not to publish completed ones, because of concern about controversy. Several said they did not study dogs or other higher mammals because of fears of animal-rights activism. "I would like to lunatic-proof my life as much as possible," one told the interviewers. Mr. Merz, an assistant professor in Penn's department of medical ethics, said the study was not designed to determine the abundance of constraints on science. But, he said, just from the small group the researchers interviewed, it is clear that people feel constrained "fairly frequently."

    "It's a source of bias, another source of nonobjectivity in science," he continued. "It's hard to measure. We don't know really what's not being done."
last modified 9/20/05