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Rethinking language and inequality


A mural in Belfast highlighting language rights

Sometimes you can be prompted to a thought or concept so blindingly obvious it will make you wonder how it has never occurred to you previously. Being asked to write about the issue of language discrimination is one such occasion. For, while concerns over social (in)equality are regularly in the media and public discourse, one aspect of the debate which is yet to gain prominence is the role of language.

That is something that Professor Douglas Kibbee, a world expert on the relationship between language and law, is seeking to change. Doug spent three months in the School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies at Nottingham this spring, lecturing, giving workshops, and presenting a series of public lectures on language, law, and discrimination.

Prof. Kibbee’s visit was funded by the prestigious Visiting Professor scheme of the Leverhulme Trust, which enables eminent overseas researchers to enhance the skills and knowledge of the academic staff and students.

20 years of research

Over the course of 20 years Doug has brought to light many revealing examples of how the failure to allow for minority language speakers has contributed to the kinds of inequality more usually associated with race, gender, and the income gap – whether those minorities are Breton speakers in France, Spanish speakers and Native Americans in the USA, or the languages of more recently arrived migrants in North America and Europe.

Professor Kibbee is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Illinois, and so has a keen eye for the linguistic inequalities on his side of the pond. Given the changes in the political landscape over the last three years - on both sides of the Atlantic - is this fuelling a rising open intolerance of minority voices?

“Certainly in the United States the openness with which really vile attitudes towards difference are expressed has been quite shocking to me and very discouraging. I think people feel empowered or emboldened to express ideas which otherwise they would have to keep more under wraps. It's discouraging how quickly things could turn with one awful person having a position of power.

“The general move in the United States between the 1950s and 70s was one of opening doors for people of different backgrounds and making a more equitable society. The reaction started in the 80s with the Reagan administration, but never with the crude boldness of the Trump administration.”

Decades of language discrimination

That may not come as a surprise to many, but what might is that the underlying issues which either overtly or inadvertently discriminate against those who speak a minority language have existed for decades in the US (and elsewhere).

“In some more conservative states there have been efforts to restrict non-English language services, but they are constrained by Federal laws – so it is more symbolic xenophobia than anything.

“There's the assumption that everyone in the United States does or should speak English, but about 20% of the population doesn't speak English at home (50-60 million people) and the number of languages spoken is in the many hundreds.”

This becomes a tangible concern for the 20% when assumptions about language are applied to the legal system, education and voting rights in particular, as Professor Kibbee explains.

“The legal protections for the translation of voting materials, for example, only kick in typically when at least 5,000 speakers of a language live within a certain congressional district.

“For education, the typical requirement if you have 20 children who are speakers of one language within a school district, it has to provide some sort of assistance for those students. Even in the city I live in, Urbana Illinois, there are more than 80 languages spoken by the students - a city of less than 50,000 people.

“Another example relates to materials explaining how to apply for disability insurance or similar government programmes. If these are not presented in languages that people understand then their ability to take advantage is compromised, resulting in a clear lack of accommodation for people who need help.”

A global issue

It’s not just an issue in America. Professor Kibbee recalls that in France there is no centralised record of the population’s racial or national origin. So although positive in the sense that everyone is “A French citizen”, the lack of information also provides a platform for discriminatory behaviour.

“You have no way of quantifying the discrimination which is going on. You can't give a figure saying people from North African origin or sub-Saharan origin are being paid 50% less than people of French origin for example because there's no way to get that statistic. It does happen and there's certainly a lot of discrimination in France, it's just harder to quantify and force people to confront.”

This would be the point at which a positive lining usually appears to cling onto, but in this case there doesn’t seem to be an obvious one. As the UK ploughs headlong towards Brexit and with Donald Trump’s presidency contributing so dramatically, few would deny the febrile atmosphere which currently exists globally. But Professor Kibbee points out that the history of language rights does at least give grounds for optimism.

“Linguistic diversity is typically addressed through policies of "separate and unequal" - no official language in the US but great linguistic inequality - or "equality through uniformity", such as the French policy of a single standard national language. Both approaches confer automatic advantage to the language of the powerful.”

“However, in the past century international human rights treaties have begun to address linguistic inequalities. Although the application of these ideas in specific national contexts has not always lived up to the promise, these declarations have promoted awareness, providing goals we can all aspire to."

Doug’s book Language and the Law. Linguistic Inequality in America was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016. For more information about the University’s School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies visit

Posted on Wednesday 10th July 2019

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