Linguistic Rights

There are many countries in the world which are multi-lingual, but not all of these countries treat the speakers of languages other than the dominant one fairly. Some of these countries are federal while others follow the unitary system of government. India is a country most of whose states were created on the basis of linguistic identity. For example, the majority of people in Tamilnadu speak Tamil and those in Gujrat speak Gujrati. The official language in India is English and Hindi. Although Bengali was spoken as a mother tongue by the majority of the population in pre-1971 Pakistan, only Urdu was given the status of official language after the creation of Bangladesh. One of the most important reasons why East Pakistan became an independent country called Bangladesh was because of its Bengali identity. Even in present day Pakistan Urdu is not spoken by the majority of its population as the mother tongue. It’s used mainly as a link language. The issue of fair and just treatment for linguistic minorities is still unresolved and attempts are being made in some international organisations to address this.

International PEN is one such worldwide organisation of writers, its nam e signifying Poets, Essayists and Novelists. It has several committees to look after the interest of writers, one of which is the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee.

Spain is one of the federal countries in Europe where different languages are spoken. The dominant language is Spanish, also called Castilleno, as it is spoken in the province of  Castile. It is now spoken in the majority of Latin American countries as Argentina, Mexico and Colombia. However, there are many languages spoken in Spain including Catalan, spoken in the province of Catalonia in southeast whose capital is Barcelona; Basque spoken in the northwest; and Galician spoken in the west. There have been demands for autonomy in Catalonia and use of Catalan language as the official language for some time now. Catalonia is one of the rich provinces of Spain with a population of about 10 million.

Girona, a small town in Catalonia, has now become famous for a manifesto of linguistic rights that was signed there called Girona Manifesto on Linguistic Rights.

The main features of the ten-Point Girona Manifesto are the need to protect linguistic diversity as a world heritage. The fifth Point of the manifesto says that every linguistic community has the right for its language to be used as an official language in its territory The Sixth point deals with school instruction of the language in its territory. The tenth point of the manifesto states that the right to use and protect one’s own language must be recognised by the United Nations as one of fundamental human rights.

Girona Manifesto was adopted by International PEN Assembly of Delegates on September 2011 in the course of  the PEN Congress in Belgrade, Serbia. A resolution adopted in 2012 at the PEN Congress in Korea was critical of the Spanish government due to its treatment of the Catalan language. It says that this language was prohibited during General Franco’s dictatorial regime from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. It complains that the language was facing discriminatory treatment.

Other languages which demand recognition include Kurdish language in Turkey and Iraq as well as  Uighur language in Xinjiang in China. However, Girona Manifesto on Linguistic Rights has not yet been approved by the United Nations.

While multi-lingual countriessuch as Switzerland use German, French, Italian and Romanch as languages of administration in the areas where these are used, this is not the case in all European countries. There are different langages spoken in the French republic, which is an unitary state, as Basque in the southwest, Breton in Britanny in the west, Flemish in the northwest and Alsacian dialect of German in the east. However, these languages are not used as languages of administration in these regions and the use of only French language is permitted. Similarly, English and French are the two major languages spoken in Canada. French language is spoken and used in the province of Quebec and is also used in all documents produced by the Canadian federal  government.

Nepal is a multi-lingual federal country according to Interim Constitution, and unlike in the 1990 constitution, the Interim Constitution has recognised the Nepali language as “language of government work” (sarkari kamkajko bhasha) and not as Nepal’s national language. About half of the population of Nepal speak Nepali as mother tongue and about 80 percent of its population can use it.

One of the reasons why the Constituent Assembly formed after elections in 2008 could not promulgate a constitution was due to controversy regarding the identity of the constituent units in which language would play an important role. In most of the proposed states, the speakers of minority languages didn’t make majority of populations. Many of the ethnic groups are starting to forget their own native language and are learning to speak Nepali as mother tongue. It was estimated that more than 50 percent of Magars had adopted Nepali as their mother tongue, according to the 2001 census. The languages spoken by Madhesis in the Tarai was classified by the census as Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi and few other languages, together making about a third of Nepal’s population. On the other hand, 10 percent of the 601 members of the CA regularly spoke in Hindi and not in Maithili, Bhojpuri or Awadhi. .

It seems likely that languages other than Nepali would also be made “working languages” in some federal states which will be formed when the new constitution of the federal republic of Nepal is declared. Moreover, it is also possible that some languages could be used at the local level besides Nepali for official purposes.

Posted on: 2012-11-18 09:03 / Kantipur

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