The Tower of Babel. Not pictured: the folks trying to fix it

Senior Staff Writer and language junkie Levi Cohen made his way to the Heyman Center for “The Tower of Babel: Human Rights and the Paradox of Language,” a Global Language Mellon Sawyer Seminar presented by the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society as part of the Public Lectures Series in Global Language Justice. Noted international human rights scholar Moria Paz made the case for how courts are failing minority languages.

Having sprinted from Finnish class to make it on time, I arrived at “The Tower of Babel: Human Rights and the Paradox of Language” out of breath and a little out of sorts. I was soon put right the moment that Moria Paz— a Visiting Scholar at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford and a Fellow at Georgetown’s Center on National Security and the Law— took the lectern to put forth a compelling critique of human rights courts and their failure to adequately protect minorities.

Paz started off by asking us to think to ourselves about the basic function of language. A French mother living in New York, she said, might want her kids to speak English as the language that best facilitates their success in a primarily English-speaking landscape. Equally, she might want to teach them French, the language of her culture, her family, and her heritage. But French, with over 76 million native speakers, is a thriving global language. Paz transformed her example simply by switching what language she was talking about.

What if, Paz said, the mother was a native speaker of Romansh, a language with only 60,000 speakers . Suddenly, the question of what to teach the kids gains a new, urgent dimension: the survival of Romansh may well depend on youth participation in their cultural and linguistic heritage. Who bears the cost– the actual cost– of transmitting minority languages? Who should bear the cost? The mother, her children, the community, the state? If a language dies every two weeks, as indeed happens, whose burden should it be to try to stimy that flow?

Focusing on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), Paz argued that human rights law has promised to take on that burden but has actually failed on that count. Rather than the ideal espoused in UNHRC documents, wherein minorities are not denied the right to “enjoy [their] own culture” and to “use [their] own language”– an ideal Paz calls “the law of the book”– the legal reality (“the law in action,” per Paz) only incidentally protects minority languages in service to other, unrelated politics. Paz gave three examples of how language protection was realized in this limited way.

In her first example, Paz examined how languages were protected in order to realize other rights. In the UNHRC case of Guesdon v. France, a Bretonese man wanted to give his statement to French courts in Bretonese and have an interpreter throughout the duration of the legal process, calling the Celtic language his “language of ease.” The court denied this request on the basis that Guesdon could speak French, and therefore (per his right to due process) was able to “adequately communicate” in court. Thus, minority languages were protected up to the point of securing a fair trial. The moment the court judged the right to speak a language no longer useful to secure the right to a fair trial, they denied it.

Secondly, Paz said, languages were protected only in order to facilitate assimilation. In the ECHR case of Oršuš and Others v. Croatia, Romani primary school students were allowed to be instructed in Romani only up to the point that they could then be integrated into Croatian-instructed classes. The protection hinged on the quick and inevitable assimilation of the Romani into the Croation majority.

Lastly, languages were protected as a way to politically compromise. The ECHR case Mathieu Mohin and Clerfayt v. Belgium provided an example: two politicians elected to office in a Flemish-speaking area of Belgium wanted to take an oath of office in French, their primary language. They were denied on the grounds of protecting the expression of local politics; as politicians in a monolingual area (of a multilingual country, however), they had to speak the minority language in their oaths. Flemish was thus protected only bnecause of the political organization of Belgium– not because of its status as a minority, but because of political status quo.

So what are the takeaways? Paz divided peoples’ conceptions of language into two categories: language as identity-constitutive and language as a tool of communication. The former, by necessity, uplifts diversity as a positive value; like the loss of an animal in an ecosystem, the loss of a language (and the language’s culture) can hurt the whole community. The latter emphasizes language as subservient to the operation of a market, and therefore how linguistic diversity can be a cost to society. The latter– what Paz sees as the unofficial position of human rights courts– prefers assimilation over all else. If a human rights court allocates its resources towards political negotiations; if a human rights court focuses on this communicative function of language; if a human rights court must include the cost considerations of language in its discussion– then the commitment of those courts to linguistic preservation is only skin deep.

A spirited Q-and-A session followed, with each questioner bringing their own personal experiences— as law school students, as social workers— into the conversation. Paz, more or less moderating on her own, was lively throughout, asking questions back to the audience. I sat and listened as ideas were debated, examples and counterexamples provided, The sense I had, walking out of the Heyman Center and back into the balmy night, was that a truly productive exchange of ideas had taken place. With people like Moria Paz as our advocates, maybe scaling Babel won’t be so hard.

Brueghel the Elder’s Tower of Babel via Wikimedia Commons.