Linguistic Human Rights

Today I came across some interesting online lecture notes by Professor Peter L Patrick of the Department of Language & Linguistics at the University of Essex. The lecture is entitled “Linguistic Human Rights: A Sociolinguistic Introduction” and covers many of the issues discussed in a recent post about language use in the work place.

There are a number of examples of people being fired for speaking Spanish in places of work with English-only rules. In many cases these people were hired because of their ability to speak Spanish and English. Their employers are effectively saying “You can speak your language when it suits me, but not when it suits you.” When cases of this kind go to court, judges often find in favour of the employers.

This entry was posted in Language.

12 Responses to Linguistic Human Rights

  1. Interesting note about the connotations here: just by titling the issue as “linguistic human rights,” it seems to me that any responses from here on out are potentially biased. Sorry–I had a teacher that was really big on semantics, and I’ve had other professors that told me that if I ever made a poll, semantic neutrality was a must in order to make the results valid.

  2. Jangari says:

    Screw neutrality! This is a blatant violation of human rights.

    As far as I’m concerned, every human has the right to speak his or her own language without fear of reprimand. They do, however, risk not being understood if they speak their own language in a context in which no one else speaks that language, but the cases you allude to here are those in which speaking one’s own language is completely justified and should not be punishable.

  3. TJ says:

    Here we have variety of nationalities in work places, and such rule would be absolutely silly to be issued!
    You can hire someone for his abilities in languages and that does not contradict the desire to speak this language or that whenever the employee wants to. If the manager wants him to speak a certain language at a specific time for some purpose then that’s it, but to ban it totally and completely, this is called interfering in private affairs and has nothing to do with work at all!

  4. James says:

    surprise me: the people fired for speaking Spanish were in the USA, right? Some people there have an incredible hate and fear of the spanish language and latino people which leaves me breathless.

  5. James says:

    why did I write “breathless”? Speechless is what I meant.

    Breathless… whatever next


  6. Simon–I made another comment on this journal that seems to have been put on moderator’s hold for some reason. If I have done something wrong, could you please contact me by e-mail and explain?

  7. Polly says:

    @Minstrel: Happens to me all the time.

    As far as the apprehension toward Spanish/Latinos by some, even many, I’ve seen it, too.
    But, I wouldn’t chalk it all up to racism. It’s natural to worry that one’s culture and nation might be disappearing when major cities have huge immigrant populations and you have to “press #1 for English” and some who are BORN here don’t speak English all that well.

    It can be threatening to find oneself, unexpectedly, a minority in one’s own country.

    That’s one reason I think employers in the USA, at least, are justified in limiting communication to English between co-workers in the workplace. It keeps the minority employees (and by that I mean ANY group that is not in the majority) from feeling alienated or marginalized if they are seriously outnumbered. There is a social aspect to work like in anything humans do.
    My company doesn’t enforce its English only policy and I’m rather glad about that. But, not everyone is a language/culture enthusiast.

  8. James says:

    well obviously you need a common language for business, etc etc I understand all this from living it, but the example of the man who was fired for speaking spanish on his break (Saucedo v. Brothers Well Services, Inc. 1979) is frankly risible. I am glad that was nearly 30 years ago: I hope that people have grown up… (hope against hope)

    But the immigration and especially Hispanic immigration button sends quite a lot of United Statesians into a flat spin, doesn´t it.

  9. BG says:

    Yes, the immigration issue is a very big debating topic in the U.S, especially here in California. Some people just want to kick all the Hispanics out, which would, among other things, kill California’s agricultural economy.

  10. Joe says:

    To be fair, people get fired all the time for less. Florida, for example, is considered a “right to work State” which means that an employer can fire you at any time and for any reason. If he or she doesn’t like your haircut, you could get fired. (and I’ve actually seen this happen)

    When you consider that being employed is a privilege, is it really appropriate to label this “linguistic human rights?” That connotation would seem more appropriate to the right of a person granted by his government to speak his or her language, not the right to speak whatever language they want while on the clock.

    I mean, there have also been issues in the US over the right of employers to not hire people if they smoke or engage in other unhealthy behaviors.

    Living in Florida, a state which is increasingly Hispanic, I don’t think some people realize that the language issue can become incredibly divisive at work. When, say, two people out of an office of otherwise monolingual English speakers are known to be bilingual and speak English fluently, but then will communicate to each other in Spanish, it sometimes arises suspicion and mistrust. I’ve been at Wal-Mart many times and had the cashiers chatting back and forth to each other in Spanish, one time one cashier actually said something about her customer to a coworker in Spanish, thinking the middle aged white lady wouldn’t understand a word she said, and then to everyone’s surprise the woman unloaded a verbal torrent on the cashier and went to management to complain.

    It really isn’t building community when there’s a notable language divide, which is what’s present here more or less. I’m all for linguistic diversity, but at the same time I’m thinking that an official language policy for a country as diverse as the US might be necessary. I’ve also seen other immigrant groups growing angry over the perceived preferential treatment afforded to Spanish speakers because of their large numbers.

    Bottom line is it’s a touchy issue, but one I think is sometimes over politicized.

  11. Simon – mwynhau’r blog -difyr iawn. Gobeithio fod y cwrs at dy ddant yn Llambed. Ti ‘di clywed am y rhelynt gyda Thomas Cok Travel ym Mangor? Yr un fath o beth. Wyt ti hefyd wedi clywed am gais dotCYM i gael parth ar y we i’r iaith a’r diwylliant Cymraeg a Chymreig –

    A simliar issue has cropped up in Wales with Thomas Cook Travel (you’d have thought a travel agency would be more open-minded about different cultures and languages ;-(

    There’s trouble been there because members of staff were speaking Welsh … in Wales! Shocking. Obviously, this has caused quite a stir in Wales:

    There’s also a bid for the Welsh linguistic and cultural Domain, dotCYM – if you’re interested.

  12. Very thought-provoking! I’d like to invite you to republish this entry as a posting on the SRI Open Forum. My firm, Marc J. Lane Investment Management, Inc., hosts the online community bulletin board called The SRI Open Forum (just Google the name to find it) which was built as the central location for the free exchange of ideas and experiences around everything related to socially responsible investing, corporate governance, environmental issues, social enterprise, etc. I invite you to visit the site, and feel free to republish this article as a posting. Hope to see you there!

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