Center for Basque Studies
ar, Justice and Everyday Life


Alvarez | Braen | Foucher | Gerrand | Harry | Irujo | Lillehaugen | Pihama | Miglio | Moore | Nevins | Nunez | Reyhner | Robertson | Urrutia | Varennes | Viri


AlvarezOscar Alvarez

University of the Basque Country
Faculty of History of America


Curriculum Vitae


Diaspora and Language. Insights from the Case of Basque Immigrants in the Americas

This presentation aims to offer a general view of the development of discourses and practices the maintenance and progress of the Basque language among Basque communities abroad, especially in the Americas during the times of mass migration. We will mainly analyze:

1. The differences in the cultural and political environment in which the Basque language in used, both in their homeland and in their new host countries.

2. The general patterns of maintenance and language transmission, as well as some historical examples of its use, and the relevance of Basque immigrant communities in the development of the first non-academic examples of dialectal unification.

3. The Discourses on the importance of the Basque language in construction of the Basque national identity.


BraënAndré Braën

University of Ottawa
Faculty of Law, Civil Law Section


Curriculum Vitae



Language Rights in Canada: A Political or Judicial Leadership?

Language rights are not natural rights of the individual. These are rights that require two forms of intervention by the State. First and for a language right to exist in a legal context, the State intervenes to establish or confirm the use of one or more specific languages. Secondly, the State then has to determine how these rights are to be implemented. Since the State’s involvement is a prerequisite in language matters, it must exercise leadership in this area. Is the promotion of language rights a political issue in Canada and does the State exercise leadership in this area?  On the other hand, court remedy has become a tool for promoting and developing language rights in Canada. Indeed courts have been called upon to define the scope of language rights and to ensure their real implementation. They have promoted a more generous language rights regime than originally envisioned by legislators. In doing so, the courts have remedied to some extent the power imbalance between official language minorities and governments.


FoucherPierre Foucher

University of Ottawa
Faculty of Law, Civil Law Section


Curriculum Vitae



Language Rights and Culture in The Jurisprudence of The Supreme Court of Canada

There is general agreement around the fact that language has two functions: one that is instrumental, in that it helps people to communicate among themselves, and one that is much more focused on identity and culture.  The first one gives rise to individual language rights (usually, the linguistic aspect of basic Human Rights such as Freedom of Expression or the interdiction of discrimination) but the second one takes into account the collective aspect of language rights (in the official sphere, in the public space, in education). 

Canada has a long history of language legislation, but the intervention of law in language planning has taken an even more pronounced aspect since 1982 and the constitutional recognition of some language rights, as well as multiple legislative interventions with regard to language planning. 

The Supreme Court of Canada has taken a resolutely collective approach about language rights and has made the link between language and culture in landmark cases, which have oriented language policies in many governments throughout Canada.  The communication will review some of those cases to outline the Court’s theory of language rights and the consequences it had for the flourishing of official languages’ minorities in Canada.   Some comments will also be offered about aboriginal language rights in conclusion.


GerrandPeter Gerrand

Monash University
School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics


Curriculum Vitae



Challenges in Gaining Visibility for Minority Languages on the Internet

In September 2005 .cat, the first Internet top level domain (TLD) dedicated to a single language and culture, Catalan, was approved – and five months later, the .cat registry was implemented and launched.

In the following five years it has met its proponents' key goals: to raise the visibility and prestige of the Catalan language and culture, to provide a major focus for Catalan ethnic identity, and to be an aggregator of global Catalan culture on the Internet.   Statistics from the .cat registry registry show how well the latter two goals have been quantitatively realized: by October 2010 more than 44,000 second-level domain names (e.g. for the Barcelona Football Club) were registered under .cat; and with more than 30 million webpages implemented, .cat now has the highest average figure (approximately 700) of webpages per registered domain name of all the TLDs – including .com, .net and .org!

Yet, despite this resounding success, it remains the sole TLD devoted to a minority or regional language, despite the best efforts of Basques, Bretons, Galicians, Scots, the Welsh and others to achieve similar status. Why is this so?

To understand the reasons, one must explore the politics governing the decision-making processes of ICANN, the body governing the Internet's Domain Name System.  ICANN's role is to co-ordinate the Internet’s addressing system as the Internet evolves, and its driving principle has been ‘to promote competition in the domain name marketplace while ensuring Internet security and stability’.  The focus of its drive to promote competition has been, firstly, to open up the market for new registrars of domain names (subdomains) for existing TLDs; and then to extend competition amongst the TLDs themselves, by creating new sets of generic top level domains: the gTLDs.  (National sovereignty remains preeminent in the allocation and autonomous governance granted to country code TLDs: the ccTLDs.)

ICANN was set up in 1998 as a not-for-profit ‘multi-stakeholder organization’; but clearly not all of its stakeholders have equal influence.

The preparation for a new round of applications for 'generic' TLDs, gTLDs, has already taken more than four years, and the detailed rules for the selection process are now planned to be finalized in March 2011. Because of the longevity and uncertainty of the process, most regional language groups supporting new TLDs for their languages and cultures have ceased to attend ICANN’s international policy-making meetings, for lack of funds, since 2008.

This paper explores the unequal roles of the stakeholders in the ICANN community, and the pressures they have exerted during the long gestation period in the development of rules for the selection of new gTLDs.  In particular it explains why ICANN's Government Advisory Committee, quietly acting in defence of sovereign rights in an apparently fully globalised medium, remains a critical hurdle for all new proposals for 'language and culture' TLDs.

The ICANN Board formally launched its preparation of selection processes for its third (current) round of new gTLDs in June 2008, but its policy-making constituent organizations have been working on the relevant policies since late 2005.


HarryDebra Harry

Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism


Curriculum Vitae




Contextualizing Language Revitalization Within an Indigenous Rights Framework

Indigenous knowledge (IK) is the foundation of Indigenous cultures.  This knowledge permeates every aspect of our lives and is expressed in both tangible and intangible forms. Indigenous peoples’ languages reflect an ancient co-evolution in relationship to our lands and territories.  Indigenous peoples and our cultural and land-based knowledge systems play a critical role in conservation and healthy ecosystems. With the onset of European colonization in the Americas, Indigenous peoples were subject to colonial government assimilation policies and practices designed to undermine the rights of Indigenous peoples to protect our languages from government legislation.  Today, Indigenous peoples continue to experience new forms of neocolonial policies designed to undermine Indigenous peoples’ rights to protect our language and traditional cultural heritage. International fora including the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Intellectual Property Organization are developing new global standards intended to protect traditional knowledge systems. A critical component of these new proposed standards involve the imposition of intellectual property rights over Indigenous knowledge systems enabling commercial use, thereby posing new threats to Indigenous knowledge systems and languages. The presenter will discuss the fundamental conflicts between Indigenous worldviews and values and the globalizing forces that seek to force Indigenous knowledge systems into the global market.  The speaker will address the protection of Indigenous peoples languages and knowledge systems within international human and Indigenous rights framework, and in particular the right of self-determination.


IrujoXabier Irujo

University of Nevada, Reno
Center for Basque Studies


Curriculum Vitae



The Ideological Background of Monolingualism

Many languages have been victims of linguicide policies in the context of the creation of centralized states in the 19th century and thereafter. According to the UNESCO, there were about 3,000 languages spoken worldwide of which 230 have become extinct since 1950, at a rate of almost four languages a year. In most of the cases the key reasons for extinction has been the lack of political status as a language, the legal prohibitions or the repression exerted over the speakers of these unofficial languages. Indeed, more than ninety percent of the current endangered languages worldwide have not official status, and the other ten percent are co-official.

Such legislations are the product of an ideological current fuelled by the idea that it is necessary to eliminate all national cultures within the boundaries of a given state so as to favor a unitary mono-cultural state. From this point of view, the unity of the state can only be maintained by standardizing its people. This has been the premise on which the French state, created after the events of 1789, and the Spanish state, created from the complex political process following the Napoleonic Wars and the Carlist Wars between 1812 and 1876, were generated.

This paper analyses the ideological background of these linguicide cultural policies.


LillenhaugenBrook Lillehaugen

University of Nevada, Reno
Department of English


Curriculum Vitae



Issues in Reconciling Linguistic and Community Concerns in Developing Orthographies for Endangered Languages

Most of the world's endangered languages are also un- or under-documented.   Often one of the first tasks for a linguist working on such a language is to design an orthography (or writing system).  An orthography facilitates documentary work as well as literacy work in the language of the community.  Despite their importance, however, orthographies can be topics of contention between linguists and community members, between linguists and other linguists, and within the speech community itself.  One reason for such contention is that the individuals involved may have different goals in mind when developing an orthography.  For example, linguists usually aim to have a orthography that directly represents the phonological system of the language.  Community members may have other, sometimes conflicting, criterion in developing a writing system, including non-linguistic motivations.  In this talk I explore some examples of practical orthographies developed by linguists and community groups, examining the motivations behind the systems developed.


PihamaLeonie Pihama

The University of Auckland
Kaupapa Maori Research Company




ToituTe Reo:Raising Maori Speaking Children In a Colonised Context

This presentation will highlight developments related to Maori language revitalisation in Aotearoa.  I will provide an overview of a range of Maori community initiatives alongside historical and legislative developments to highlight the actions undertaken by Maori communities in the struggle for the reclamation of our Indigenous language for current and future generations.  The presentation will also include a range of reflections from Maori whanau (extended families) who over the past 25 years have been involved in the raising of Maori speaking children within a colonised context where English remains dominant and  sites for speaking te reo Maori are limited.


MiglioViola Miglio

Barandiarán Chair of Basque Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara


Curriculum Vitae



Language Rights and Self-Determination

Looking at the 1993 UNESCO classification of languages according to their vitality (UNESCO Red Book on Endangered Languages), we may not be surprised to find that Judeo-Italian is among the ‘Nearly Extinct Languages’ spoken in Italy, but we may be surprised to find Ladin, Friulian and Sardinian as ‘Endangered Languages’ next to Basque, as well as Francoprovençal, Piedmontese, Ligurian, Lombard, and Emilian among the ‘Potentially Endangered Languages’. In the 2009 UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, all the above-mentioned Romance variety in Italy are ‘definitely endangered’, whereas Basque is classified only as ‘vulnerable’.

It is of course refreshing to find that UNESCO employs a linguistic definition of language varieties as ‘languages’ – thus, what in common parlance is called a dialect acquires a higher status (Lombard, Emilian etc.), despite the lack of an army. There is, in fact, a well-known tongue-in-cheek adage among linguists that states that a language is a dialect with an army – highlighting that the status of ‘standard language’ is usually acquired by means of extra-linguistic factors, such as political, economic power and social prestige.

One notices, however, that while the Romance varieties in Italy are losing ground because ‘children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home’, Basque is now just ‘vulnerable’, which means: ‘most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home)’. (

In this paper, I would like to analyze past and current legislation, both on the regional and national scale relating to linguistic minorities in Italy and language rights, and compare the status of these languages with other cases, such as Basque, whose vitality is undeniably improving, as assessed also by UNESCO data. If we look at Basque legal history, during the period marked by a Spanish centralized government between 1878-1978, Basque dramatically lost ground in terms of speakers and domains (Irujo&Urrutia 2010), whereas starting from 1978 it has recovered much of its lost ground in the Basque Autonomous Community, where a decentralized government and an until recently ruling nationalist party promoted the use and formal teaching of the language. In Navarra, however, with a considerably autonomous government, but little political motivation, the tendency towards recovery is only feebly positive, not to mention the dramatic decline of the Basque varieties spoken in the French state, caused by its extreme centralizing policies (ibid.).

It is tempting to conclude that only a certain degree of political autonomy and cultural commitment by local administrators can revitalize and maintain the status of regional languages. Their loss constitutes a severe blow to cultural diversity and linguists, educators, local and national administrators should recognize the need for urgent action. The Italian situation should therefore be considered and assessed in the light of success stories such as the revitalization of Basque in the Basque Autonomous Community.


MooreDenny Moore

Paraense Museum Emilio Goeldi





1. The Language Situation in Brazil

A brief history of the language situation in Brazil will be given, beginning with colonial times.  The current situation of indigenous languages will be described, including the number of languages, their number of speakers, their degree of transmission, and their degree of study.  The impact of the international movement of concern for endangered languages, their documentation, and their maintenance has influenced programs in Brazil, in terms of awareness and methodology.  Recent progressive government programs to protect language diversity are noteworthy: literacy in the native language, the language documentation program of the National Indian Foundation, the work of the Workgroup on Linguistic Diversity, the 2010 national census, and the new, large-scale National Inventory of Linguistic Diversity.  The contemporary roles of scientific linguists and missionaries will be discussed.  The discussion will aim at realistic evaluation of programs, practices, and participants, especially in relation to real, concrete benefits for the communities of speakers. 

2. Aspects of Practical Language Work in Brazilian Amazonia: Literacy, Documentation, and Surveys of the Situation of Languages

(Joe Crowley Student Union Room 422)

A brief overview of the indigenous languages of the Amazon region of Brazil will be followed by critical discussions, from a hands-on point of view, of some of the most important types of practical language projects to benefit native communities: literacy in the native language, documentation of indigenous language and culture in collaboration with native communities, and surveys to determine the situation of languages (including number of speakers, transmission, contexts of use, etc).


NevinsEleanor Nevins

University of Nevada, Reno
Faculty of Anthropology


Curriculum Vitae



Rethinking Indigenous Language Programs: From Maintenance to Empowerment

This paper brings into focus an often overlooked dimension of how language issues affecting indigenous communities are framed and acted upon.  First, I note that supporting a heritage or indigenous language is a focus of concern among many members of indigenous communities. Second, I note that this concern occasions collaboration with academics, educators and legal advocates. Such collaborative efforts are framed, and given institutional funding, in terms of two overlapping global-oriented discourses: that of advocating for the “language rights” of indigenous peoples and, more recently, attempts to ameliorate what is described as “language endangerment.” However, I also argue that the manner in which these national and global-scale concerns are brought to bear on local problems very often runs up against disjuncture between global socio-political orders and the internal complexity of local indigenous communities. Controversies, community critiques and ambivalence often occasion heritage language programs and are often misrecognized as acts of disaffiliation from the language. I propose that we investigate another possibility: that global discourses of rights and endangerment, while important for obtaining financial support and recognition, affect their own transformative distortion of language issues as these are articulated in local discourses, and can bring schools and museums into conflict with elders in extended families even as both lay claim to heritage languages and traditions.


NunezXosé Manoel Núñez Seixas

of Santiago de Compostela
Contemporary History Department


Curriculum Vitae



The Völkisch Appeal Spanish Nationalism(s) and Minority Languages in Spain

The paper will aim at bridging a long-term interpretation of the relationship between language and nationalism in Spain. On the other hand, it will focus on the one hand on the reassessment of the role of Castilian as national language by Spanish intellectual and political elites prior to the Civil War (1936-39), its enactment as a compulsory homogenizing cultural marker during Francoism, and the new vindication of Castilian as a “tool for peaceful economic expansion” that has taken place within democratic-oriented Spanish nationalism after 1978. Rather than stressing the “oppressing” character of state-led linguistic nationalism on a unidimensional basis, our aim is to show how different tendencies coexisted, regarding both the degree of tolerance towards inner cultural diversity and the role played by “substate ethnicity” in Spanish national culture. On the other hand, a comparative outline of the evolution of linguistic nationalism in the cultural peripheries, particularly the Galician-speaking, Basque-speaking and Catalan-speaking will be offered, by underlining their common characteristics and their different ways of approaching a similar problem: how to achieve linguistic standardization and social “normalization”, as well as how to relate this process of language revival to political strategies of nation-building.

Our main point is that the link between language and nationalism is a flexible and variegated one, and that the reenactment of “linguistic policies” by each nationalism in power at different levels (state and substate) has led to highly paradoxical results, that to some extent certify the idea of Spain being an example of the failure of opposing nationalisms (both state-led and state-seeking). On the one hand, minority languages have managed —not without difficulties— to resist the challenges of modernization and aggressive Spanish homogenising cultural policies at different moments, to an extent that can be considered highly successful within the Western European context. Language policies developed by substate “nationalising governments” have also contributed to increase percentages of social knowledge of minority languages. However, “knowing” a language does not mean actively “speaking” a language. The levels of social use of minority languages have tended to be stable or even to diminish, in a parallel way to the change of attitudes that large sectors of the “cultural periphery” have adopted towards the use and adoption of minority languages after 1980. On the other hand, a paradoxical effect of Francoist “authoritarian nation-building” was the effective spreading of Castilian as a common language understood and spoken by all Spaniards regardless of their national allegiances and sentiments. Most Spanish nationalists maintain their reluctance to accept minority language as a constitutive part of Spanish nationhood, while embracing the allegedly “cultural superiority” of Spanish as a world language. In fact, the Spanish language is considered by Spanish democratic and “constitutional” nationalists since the 1980s to be a tool of foreign economic expansion and national prestige. However, these dynamics face three difficulties. First, the lack of economic input associated to the Castilian language, as it is a language that suffers from lack of social, economic and academic prestige, something that prevents it from becoming an effective “second lingua franca” of the world. Second, the constant challenge posed by the resilience of very significant sectors of the cultural periphery of Spain, which do not consider Castilian to be a proper language of their nations, but to be an external imposition that should disappear in the long run, once statehood or sovereignty is achieved. Third, the rejection of “Spanish” monopoly of the Castilian language by big Latin American nation-states, such as Mexico or Argentine.

Our main conclusion will be that linguistic nationalism based on the one-sided identification between the nation and one language is doomed to failure in all Iberian cases. Both Spain and its substate nations will only persist as linguistically plural nations, and this process has been accentuated by the impact of mass immigration in the 21st century. Paradoxically, the success of nationalism will mean the failure of language homogenization. Something that, from a normative point of view, can be considered as a sign of democratic normality, but is extremely disappointing for nationalists themselves



ReyhnerJon Reyhner

College of Education, Department of Educational Specialties
Northern Arizona University


Curriculum Vitae


Revitalizing Basque and Other Indigenous Languages and Cultures

The Basque are thee indigenous people of Europe, with a history predating the Indo-European immigrants to the continent. As indigenous people they share many characteristics with the indigenous people of the Americas, including intermittent government efforts to repress their language and culture, including the suppression of their language in and outside of schools. Other similarities include the front doors of their houses traditionally facing east as do Navajo hogans and an emphasis on the importance of family. Also like the Navajo and many other American Indian tribes they trace their lineage matrilineally.  Like the many American Indians who have moved off their Indian nations, often to cities, to find jobs, the Basque have undergone a diaspora that has led them to the United States and other countries across the globe. They, like indigenous peoples worldwide, are survivors, having faced repression and even genocide off and on throughout their history. Also, as Mark Kurlansky notes in his Basque History of the World, today more than government repression it is television, movies, and other modern mass media that are threatening the Basque language, a sentiment echoed by American Indian elders.

The Basque, like other indigenous peoples, have both resisted and accommodated the forces that intersected their lives from the ancient Romans to the modern Spanish and French. They have largely adopted Catholicism and their language has incorporated foreign words, however its grammar has resisted change. Kurlansky found for the Basque and other groups “political repression produces cultural revival” (p. 158), and he writes, “The promotion of the Basque language remains the goal of most [Basque] nationalists” (p. 331). The strong Basque interest in keeping their language and culture flourishing, even beyond the boundaries of their ancient homeland, is shared by American Indians and other indigenous peoples. In a September 2000 press release, then Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye declared that the “preservation of Navajo culture, tradition, and language” is the number one guiding principle of the Navajo Nation.”

The post-World War II human rights efforts associated with the United Nations have recognized the right of self-determination for indigenous groups and the right to maintain and revitalize their languages and cultures, including the use of their language in schools. Language and cultures are the markers of human identity that define the lifeways and values of groups. The destruction of languages and cultures leads to a rootlessness that leaves children directionless in a world that offers myriad hedonistic dead ends of drugs and materialism. As the late American Indian activist Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) wrote in his book God is Red, “A society that cannot remember and honor its past is in peril of losing its soul” (1973, p. 276). Efforts at indigenous culture and language revitalization are integral to group survival and have an important place in modern society. The United States’ longest serving Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1933-1945) John Collier concluded in his The Indians of the Americas that modern Americans “have lost that passion and reverence for human personality and for the web of life and the earth which the American Indians have tended as a central, sacred fire” (1947, p. 17). Later in his memoir From Every Zenith he wrote, “Assimilation, not into our [modern American] culture but into modern life, and preservation and intensification of heritage are not hostile choices, excluding one another, but are interdependent through and through” (1963, p. 203).


RobertsonLindsay Robertson

University of Oklahoma
College of Law. Center for the Study of American Indian Law and Policies


Curriculum Vitae


The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

In September 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.   The Declaration, more than a decade in the making,  is the first major international statement on a broad range of collective rights, including language rights.   It may eventually prove for such rights as important as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights has proven for individual rights.

My remarks will cover three areas:  (1) the background of the Declaration, including (a) the history of efforts by indigenous groups to win international recognition and (b) the process of negotiation; (2) the language provisions, including their scope and intended effect; and (3) the problem of enforceability, including the nature of declarations in general and the process of formation of customary international law.


UrrutiaIñigo Urrutia

University of the Basque Country
Faculty of Law, Administrative Law Section


Curriculum Vitae




Freedom of language and Language Rights: Promoting Languages as an Overriding Reason in the Public Interest

In an increasingly globalised and interrelated world, regional and/or minority languages are facing intense challenges.  The opening up of markets, the freedoms of movement and settlement, and the side-effects of economic globalization such as deregulation and privatization have obvious repercussions on all languages.  Economic freedoms are not linguistically neutral.  They favour some languages and put others under pressure, regardless of their status, producing mutual imbalances.  Even though this is a global phenomenon, the mechanisms for coping with this effect are not the same for State languages and regional or minority languages

The objective of creating a common market as an “area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured” requires the removal of any kind of barriers which may obstruct this. From that point of view, any linguistic requirements that might be established at the State or sub-state level could be considered suspicious insofar they might affect the market freedoms. This same effect can be seen prima facie when language policies in Member States are not set down by means of compulsory language requirements, but rather in conceding aids or advantages for the purpose of promoting the use of the regional languages. To the extent that such aids may affect commercial exchanges between Member States and provide advantages to certain companies, services or productions, one needs to analyse whether or not this is compatible with EU competition policy.

The EU primary Law did not consider the need for a co-ordinated language policy between Member States, nor did it envisage the possibility that the EU Law affect the language policy of each of them. Nevertheless, it is a known fact that on the back of the process of economic integration, European Community Law affects multitude of non-economic fields, including those having to do with language policy. In fact, Community law deals with areas that have been transferred, but Community policies are commonly set in operational terms defining the objective to be attained. This being so, the achievement of an objective in any one given area may equally affect other areas that are managed by means of Member States public policies. Matters of language may be deemed to be an example of this expansion effect of European Community law.

All in all, at this point in time language policy cannot be seen just as an area to be dealt with exclusively under the autonomy of the Member States, but rather as yet another area subject to the discipline of European Community legal order in matters of competition policy and one which must also be compatible with the basic European Community freedoms.

This friction area, which can be identified as the level to which cultural and linguistic promotion can justify restrictions on European Community freedoms, has not been addressed in European Community primary law. In view of the failure to deal with this matter under the Treaties, and in view of the absence of the horizontal European Community legislation which could serve to clarify to what extent linguistic issues can affect the economic freedoms, the balance between community freedoms and internal language policies of state and sub-state entities, has been defined progressivity by the EC Court of Justice. This paper analyzes the judicial approach to this issue follows with an emphasis on the consideration of language measures as “overriding reasons in the public interest”.

VarennesFernand De Varennes

Murdoch University
School of Law


Curriculum Vitae



The Language Rights of Minorities in Europe: A Critical Look at the Law and Practice

Recent decades has seen a proliferation of legal – and political – instruments emanating from the Council of Europe and European Union institutions not only recognising the desirability of language and other rights for minorities, but also giving some of these legal form. While these represent significant advances, the practice suffers from poor implementation mechanisms. As a result, the situation of many minorities across Europe, including the Basque in France and Spain, may not be reaping the benefits of an increase of the protection of their rights that was hoped for – yet.

ViriDenis Viri

Arizona State University
Center for Indian Education


Curriculum Vitae



Nation-States and Native Tribal Language Vitality: The Challenge of Post-Colonialism in North America and East Africa

In the long term, the colonization of the Americas by Europeans has had a devastating effect on the continuity of virtually all American Indian languages. In fact, it was government policy, especially during the Indian boarding school era, to punitively eliminate the use of Native languages and to replace them with English.  Ironically, although intended to serve as agents of assimilation, the boarding schools actually had the effect of unifying Native peoples as they experienced the forced dissolution of the use of their tribal languages.  As a result, organized resistance, reinforced by the innate cultural resilience, has culminated in a “post-colonial Native America” (Duran & Duran, 1995) where American Indian tribes now enjoy governmental self-determination, control of their lands, and recently-enacted federally-mandated protection of the 210 remaining American Indian languages, most of which are now already highly endangered. 

Upon British colonization of the area now comprising the African nation of Uganda, there were—as was the case in the Americas—a variety of tribal groups speaking 40 indigenous languages.   The British authorities imposed a system of education that ultimately promulated English as the language of government and as a common form of communication among peoples from Uganda’s diverse language groups.  As in the Americas, students were often denigrated for using tribal languages and such languages were deemed as unsuitable for teaching the tenets of Christianity, a primary “justification” for colonizing Africa.  Uganda obtained its independence as a sovereign nation in 1962 but continues to face a question of the legacy of colonization including the use of English, which has been incorporated as the official language. There are continuing efforts to adopt and propagate an African language—namely Kiswahili—as an official language to unite Ugandans linguistically.  Otherwise, Ugandans’ 40 tribal languages have thus far otherwise thrived within their speaking enclaves. 

Although American Indian and Ugandan tribal groups share post-colonial freedoms and rights, albeit in somewhat different contexts, they exist within nation-states, which serve as instruments of national unity, in economic, social and cultural life.  Where a diversity of languages is concerned, the actual exercise of linguistic freedom remains entangled with the experience and paradigms wrought by of colonial language policy and practices, which persist until today within these nation-states.  These have greatly varying effects on efforts to recognize, revitalize, preserve and protect tribal languages.  Nowhere is the tension more enacted than in the education systems of both Uganda and the United States, systems rooted in assimilative models dominated by a colonial language, but with recent attempts to introduce innovations more accommodative of tribal language vitality.

As nation-states, the United States and Uganda share ideals of national unity with language as one of the more symbolic fronts. Although the American Indian tribes enjoy a more domestic form of post-colonialism, Ugandan tribes exist within a nation-state that was freed from direct colonial rule only since 1962.  However, in both cases, language policy and practice—particularly in the formal education sector—requires considerable vigilance with respect to the future and fortunes of language diversity in those nations. The question is whether a nation-state through it system of education can truly embrace and even promote linguistic diversity and tolerance as national ideals or will extant  fundamental tensions embedded in a colonial past remain to undermine it?



Center for Basque Studies

University of Nevada, Reno University of Nevada, Reno