Someone who studies endangered languages for a living once told me that when a language dies, so does a way of understanding who we and the world are; I would add a chance to integrate and improve both as well. Combine this notion with another saying, "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger" and we find ourselves closer to the predicament in which Kurdish speakers in Turkey and Spanish speakers in the US, among many other people around the globe, find themselves on a daily basis. To what extent is the denial of the right to communicate in a language a violation of human rights?
UNESCO's world language week ended this past Sunday, and during it legislator Ahmet Turk spoke in his native Kurdish tongue in the national parliament to which he and the constituency he represents belong. Regardless of the irony in his name, state-run television cut off the broadcast immediately. In contrast, when Penelope Cruz was at the Oscar podium receiving her reward, she pointedly made part of her speech in Spanish, to great applause and no cut offs anywhere. Yet, the drive to circumscribe both minority languages in the countries in which they are communicated is strong, albeit unequally. So one wonders whether in linguistic xenophobia (in these cases, from the inside out) degrees, personas or platforms bear more weight in challenging status quos.
Kurdish was made an "illegal language" in Turkey in 1991, barred from state-run institutions such as schools, courts and administrative buildings. In 2006, responding to mass immigrant rallies, the US Congress voted on an act to make English the "official" language of the country for the first time in its history. Both pieces of legislation are a denial of the fact that for centuries if not millennia, multilingualism was de facto within the territories now called national geo-political borders. Banning, suppressing or hierarchically positing languages for the sake of national or international unity is, like the anti-war protestor slogan goes, fucking for virginity. Regardless of how noble the ends may or may not be, the means are counter-productive because they are based on and perpetuate mutual exclusivity. The ultimate outcome is what I and others have called a logocide, when an endangered language becomes extinct and with it a part of the polity whose unity was supposed to be preserved in so doing.
Growing up in the province of Quebec during the second heyday of nationalist separatism was in some ways the luckiest, and in others a most traumatic experience of my life. Because my parents were both immigrants, I was forced to go to a French school under the infamous Law 101, speaking Greek and English at home, and English in my community. At the time, I often confused the benefits of becoming multilingual with the banes of being branded an internal outsider, and acted out accordingly. So began without me yet knowing my concerns with how languages can bring people together but also keep them apart, literarily, legally or otherwise, which eventually sparked and fuelled my concerns about how peace, peacemaking and other social formations can be paradoxical in the same way.
To my knowledge, as of this writing, language rights are not human rights. Despite or because of violations of both perhaps they should be made so before endangered languages as current events become reactively endangering languages aimed at preventing a universally or nationally monolingual future where worldwide mind control is possible.
See Antony Adolf's Multilingualism and Immigration in U.S. Public Policy for more in-depth analysis of these issues.