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<nettime> Interview with Tove Skuttnab-Kangas
Menno Grootveld on Mon, 24 May 1999 15:16:07 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Interview with Tove Skuttnab-Kangas

Three weeks ago a hearing was held in The Hague about violations of
article 9 of the People's Communication Charter. This charter, which is
based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, deals with issues
like freedom of information, access to the media and protection of the
individual against aggressive media practices. Article 9 states that
'people should have the right to information in their own mother tongue'.
Five cases of language discrimination were presented to a panel of five
international judges, presided by the Norvegian academician Tove
Skuttnab-Kangas. The following interview with her was conducted
immediately after the last session. 

In these three, or actually two, days of hearings five cases were
presented to the judges. What was your general impression? 

All the witnesses and experts were extremely well prepared for what they
did. They were very knowledgeable and is was easy to see that all of them
were engaged in not only documenting human rights violations as they were
doing here, but also doing something about them. 

Could you say something about the way that you operated? How did you
handle these cases? 

We had a lot of background information in terms of dossiers which we
received before coming here. All of us know quite a lot about
international law and language rights and education and communication
rights, so all of us tried to both read the dossiers and to read more
about each case and talk to people in advance. And also think of what kind
of criteria to use in order to judge apppropiately. 

Do you think that the oral testimony of these witnesses made a big
difference? Did they really add something to what you already knew from
these written documents? 

Obviously they added a human aspect, which would not have been there in
the same way as if we had not heard them. It is also fairly clear that all
the judges were not experts in all the cases, so in some of the cases
where one knew less it was very important to be able to ask further
questions and to hear in what way the witnesses and experts put the cases

Did you ever meet the other judges before? 

Only one of them. 

So was it difficult to work, the five of you, without any previous
meetings or whatsoever? 

No, I don't think that it was. Partly because we are not youngsters
anymore, and all of us are used to working with the most diverse groups of
people, and all of us are very multidisciplinary. And, in addition to a
common core of knowledge and interest, we had various types of expertise.
It was very good to be able to try to combine those various types. Some
people knew more about some areas or were for instance more involved in
international law, some were more involved in other aspects. So I think
that the combination of judges was excellent. We also represented several
languages, all of us are - at least to some extent - multilingual, and we
have experience from different parts of the world. So I think that it was
an excellent choice. Obviously I can't talk for the others, but I
certainly enjoyed working together with the others. 

What do you think will be the effect of these hearings? I mean, there will
be and there were already some recommendations by your panel. Do you think
that they will be taken seriously by the respective governments and
institutions that they are addressed to? 

Firstly it depends on how energetic and detailed and specified the
follow-up is. Secondly it depends on who the addressees are. And if the
addressees are not mainly the governments and states and state
representatives, which they are not, but more the civil society and
various organisations, which can also do a lot in order to put pessure on
the governments, in those cases where it is the government which has to
implement linguistic rights, I think that the effort may be fruitful. But
it is more through the educational effort and the educational influence on
civil society, trying to support civil society in getting more well argued
cases, better arguments, more research evidence for doing what they would
like to do in order to put pressure on the governments. 

I take it that you have read all of the PCC-document, the whole charter
and not just paragraph nine. Do you think that this concentration on
language issues is a good reflection of what the PCC is about? 

It is one of the important aspects of the PCC, and in general, starting
with the language aspect I think is an excellent choice. Partly because
after all we communicate to a very large extent through language. Even if
we communicate through pictures, visual images and through hearing things
and so on, we communicate to a large extent through language. And the
importance of language is growing, in terms of getting knowledge, in terms
of how power and control in the world are exercized, in terms of
ideological persuasion, becoming, in an information society, one of the
main means of influencing what happens in the world. And in that sense I
think that a concentration on language as a starting point for the
hearings that PCC has is a very good choice. 

Do you think that these five cases that were more or less selected
beforehand, represent a fair overview of what the whole issue of language
is about in the world? 

It represents a selection which has quite a lot of points covered on a
continuum from the most blatant violations of linguistic human rights to
the more sophisticated, but certainly equally effective violations of
linguistic rights. So, to give just one example, if you think of the
oppression of the Kurdish language in Turkey, which has been implemented
through physical means, through physical genocide, torture, imprisonment
and so on, and if you then think of how many of the Kurds still speak
Kurdish, even if it has been forbidden in Turkey in the constitution since
1924, a lot, the majority of the Kurds still speak Kurdish. If you take on
the other hand the Californian case, where there is a question of a much
more sophisticated linguistic genocide, via ideological messages and
ideological brainwashing, trying to tell the Spanish-speakers and
Navajo-speakers that their languages are less worthy and marginalizing it
and saying the only important thing is to learn English, and it has to
happen at the cost of your mother tongue, in a subjective way, and also
via structural means, by not offering the minority languages as the main
media of instruction. A much more sophisticated way of violating
linguistic human rights. If you think of the third and fourth generation,
if you think of those who spoke Spanish in 1924 in the United States, when
Kurdish became forbidden in Turkey, if you think of their children and
grandchildren and great-grandchildren, fewer of them speak Spanish now in
comparison with the Kurds. That means that the more sophisticated means of
commiting linguistic genocide are often more efficient than the brutal,
blatant means of doing it via physical means as in Turkey. And therefore,
since we have cases which are in various places on this continuum, from
the most brutal ways of violating linguistic human rights to the more
sophisticated ways of violating them, in that sense I see that the cases
are representative. Obviously I would have hoped that we could have had at
least one indigenous case and that we would have had more cases from
outside Europe and the Europeanised countries, for instance that we had
had something from India or the Pacific or Latin America, but five cases
is very few. So in terms of that I think that they are representative. 

Some people may think there is a danger in concentrating on these language
issues, maybe because there is a fairly thin wall between the language and
ethnicity and nationalism and so on. So, for example, to talk about the
Kurdish case, one immediately thinks of the PKK and all of that. Do you
share that fear, that it may be dangerous to talk too much about language

I do not share that fear and I have two main reasons for that. Partly the
way you put the question is part of the same 'either or'-thinking, that is
one of the ideological messages for instance in the United States - the
negative messages. And that participates in the killing of linguistic
diversity in the world. In many cases people say: either this language,
your mother tongue, or this language, the official language. If you want
to learn your mother tongue, then you are not going to learn the official
language. Or: if you learn the official language, it has to be at the cost
of your own language. To me, most 'either or'-constellations are wrong in
the starting point. It is: 'both and'. Likewise there are lots of people
who say: you concentrate on language, but it is much more important to
talk about the labor market, and the economic and political
considerations. To me, again, it is not 'either or', it is 'both and'.
Language plays a very important role in economic and political aspects of
life, and access, for instance, to the labor market and to political
participation. And likewise, when you talk about 'concentrating on
language', 'awakening feelings which may lead to nationalism of the
negative kind', to me that is also a false constellation. To me it seems
that we have to discuss languages and language rights, because linguistic
human rights and the granting of them are usually one way of preventing
what is then called 'ethnic conflict'. It is very often in cases where
linguistic and cultural rights are denied, that language and culture are
then used to mobilize people in terms which can be misused by those
political forces which are for militant, negative nationalism. So to me
granting linguistic human rights is one way of preventing conflict. And
denying linguistic human rights is one way of constructing conflict and
one way of enabling negative forces to construct conflict and to canalize
economic and political conflicts into linguistic and ethnic terms. 

Would it not be more fruitful to approach it maybe from a slightly
different viewpoint? For exampe in terms of biology, like the extinction
of species. I mean, if you take languages as species that are threatened
by extinction and that need to be preserved one way or another, you may
get rid of the sharpest edge. The nationalistic or the ethnic edge, if you
know what I mean. 

Another hat that I have on here, is being the vice-president of Terra
Lingua. Terra Lingua is a new international organisation, which wants to
partly support linguistic diversity and partly look into the relationship
between, on the one hand, linguistic and cultural diversity and, on the
other hand, biodiversity. What we know already is that those countries,
those areas in the world, which represent biological mega-diversity, which
have lots of plants and animals of different kinds, they usually also have
a lot of linguistic and cultural diversity. So, if we take the top-25
countries in the world in terms of endemic languages, meaning languages
which exist only in those countries, and eighty percent of the world's
languages exist in one country only, and then, on the other hand, we take
the top-25 mega-biodiversity countries, in terms of flowering plants or
vertebrates or various other indicators of a lot of biodiversity, there is
a very great overlap between those countries. Sixty-four percent, to be
exact, meaning: when you come closer to the equator, then there is
mega-diversity and there are also more languages. When you go further away
from the equator, usually there is less biodiversity and there are fewer
languages. So we know already that there is a fairly strong correlational
relationship between biodiversity on the one hand and linguistic and
cultural diversity on the other hand. But we also start having mounting
evidence for the fact, that this relationship may be not only
correlational, but causal. We are talking about co-evolution of humans and
their environment. Meaning biodiversity and linguistic and cultural
diversity mutually influence each other. And that may mean that if we
continue killing linguistic and cultural diversity, killing languages at
the pace which we do now, which is much, much faster than what has ever
happened in human history, at the same time we are killing the
prerequisites for the knowledge that is needed for maintaining
biodiversity. And that also means that we are undermining our own future
on the planet via killing languages. And the threat to languages in that
sense is today much, much greater than the threat to biodiversity. I have
written a lot about that, a couple of chapters in my new, very big book,
which will be out in November. And if we then try to look at the ways that
we had for maintaining linguistic diversity as a prerequisite for the
knowledge for maintaining biodiversity, then linguistic human rights,
which are part of the PCC, are one possible tool for trying to support
linguistic diversity. And, thereby, trying to support any kind of future
existence for our species, humans, on earth. 

One last question: what impressed you most, these past few days? 

On the sad side, that there are still so incredibly many basic violations
of all kinds of human rights. On the other hand, the fact that there is so
much resistance and solidarity, which is serious. People are not going to
take it for much longer and people are certainly resisting and re-creating
more ways of resisting and feeling solidarity and building networks and
trying to change the ills of the world. 

Okay, thank you very much. 

Menno Grootveld

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