Linguistic rights

Linguistic rights are the human and civil rights concerning the individual and collective right to choose the language or languages for communication in a private or public atmosphere. Other parameters for analyzing linguistic rights include the degree of territoriality, amount of positivity, orientation in terms of assimilation or maintenance, and overtness.[1]

Linguistic rights include, among others, the right to one's own language in legal, administrative and judicial acts, language education, and media in a language understood and freely chosen by those concerned.[2]

Linguistic rights in international law are usually dealt in the broader framework of cultural and educational rights.

Important documents for linguistic rights include the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (1996), the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (1992), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (1988), as well as Convention against Discrimination in Education[3] and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966).[4]


Linguistic rights became more and more prominent throughout the course of history as language came to be increasingly seen as a part of nationhood. Although policies and legislation involving language have been in effect in early European history, these were often cases where a language was being imposed upon people while other languages or dialects were neglected. Most of the initial literature on linguistic rights came from countries where linguistic and/or national divisions grounded in linguistic diversity have resulted in linguistic rights playing a vital role in maintaining stability.[5] However, it was not until the 1900s that linguistic rights gained official status in politics and international accords.[6]

Linguistic rights were first included as an international human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Formal treaty-based language rights are mostly concerned with minority rights. The history of such language rights can be split into five phases.[7][8]

  1. Pre-1815. Language rights are covered in bilateral agreements, but not in international treaties, e.g. Treaty of Lausanne (1923).
  2. Final Act of the Congress of Vienna (1815). The conclusion to Napoleon I's empire-building was signed by 7 European major powers. It granted the right to use Polish to Poles in Poznan alongside German for official business. Also, some national constitutions protects the language rights of national minorities, e.g. Austrian Constitutional Law of 1867 grants ethnic minorities the right to develop their nationality and language.
  3. Between World I and World War II. Under the aegis of the League of Nations, Peace Treaties and major multilateral and international conventions carried clauses protecting minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, e.g., the right to private use of any language, and provision for instruction in primary schools through medium of own language.[9] Many national constitutions followed this trend. But not all signatories provided rights to minority groups within their own borders such as United Kingdom, France, and US. Treaties also provided right of complaint to League of Nations and International Court of Justice.
  4. 1945–1970s. International legislation for protection of human rights was undertaken within infrastructure of United Nations. Mainly for individual rights and collective rights to oppressed groups for self-determination.
  5. Early 1970s onwards, there was a renewed interest in rights of minorities, including language rights of minorities. e.g. UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.