European Union Archives - Kendall College of Arts and Sciences

European Union

Language rights at home and abroad

man with a grey beard, glasses, hat and blazer
Professor of Spanish Eduardo Faingold

University of Tulsa Professor of Spanish Eduardo Faingold is nothing if not prolific. This world-renowned scholar of language acquisition, bilingualism, linguistic law and immigration recently published his twelfth scholarly monograph, Language Rights and the Law in the European Union. In this study, Faingold examines language policies relating to language rights in European Union (EU) law as well as in the constitutions and legal statutes of some member states, including Spain and Denmark. This book follows hard on the heels of his publication in 2018 of the similarly themed Language Rights and the Law in the United States and Its Territories.

The appearance of Faingold’s latest contribution to research on the legal protection afforded to linguistic groups is an ideal time for a conversation with a man who is fluent in five languages and has called TU his academic home since 1995.

Please tell us a little about yourself.

I was born in Argentina, where I lived until the age of 18, before emigrating to Israel in 1976 to escape the military dictatorship in Argentina in 1976. While I was in Israel, I earned an MA in English linguistics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a PhD in linguistics from Tel Aviv University.

Man in a black t-shirt seated at a restaurant table
At an Arab restaurant in Yafo, Israel

When I was 32, I moved to the United States so I could do postdoctoral research in linguistics at UCLA, from 1990 to 1992, and SUNY Stony Brook, from 1992 to 1995. At that point, I obtained a job as an assistant professor of Spanish here at TU. Since then, I have also held a variety of visiting appointments, including at NYU, the Hebrew University, the University of Cape Town, the Max Planck institutes for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg.

On a more personal note, I’ve been married to Sonia, whom I met in Israel when we were both students at the Hebrew University, for 40 years. My Son Noam was born in Israel the year I finished my bachelor’s degree. Sonia is a bilingual therapist in the Tulsa Metropolitan Area; Noam is a music composer and teacher in Washington, D.C. I Enjoy listening to rock, folk and blues music in English, Spanish and Hebrew. I have a large CD collection and I spend a great deal of time listening to it.

What are language rights?

Language rights protect the individual and collective rights to use one’s language in communication with public officials and in judicial proceedings. They also protect the right to education in one’s native language.

States often restrict the use of minority languages because of the assumption that using the majority language is a necessity. This leads to establishing a distinction between majority groups, which have their languages recognized, and minorities, which do not. Language rights can be used to protect minorities from discrimination.

What drew you to this field and what keeps you invested?

My interest in language rights was first ignited by a conversation I had with Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas, a prominent Mexican activist for Indigenous rights, about racial and ethnic minorities in the Americas. Our discussion took place in 1999 at the Salzburg Seminar: Race and Ethnicity, Social Change through Public Awareness. During our conversation, Bishop Ruiz asked me to consider using my expertise in linguistics for the benefit of linguistic minorities in the United States.

Intellectual curiosity and the desire to contribute to the promotion of language justice in the world have kept me invested in my research on language rights over the past 20 years.

Why are language rights and language policies important, and for whom?

The right to use one’s own language is of crucial importance to protect individual and collective identity and culture as well as to participate in public life. Restrictions on language rights can result in legal proceedings being biased, as they may be held in a language that a minority speaker does not speak or even understand.

Another important consideration is that children can suffer when they are taught in a language with which they are not familiar. As well, the exclusion of minority languages from the public sphere can prevent those who do not speak the national language from running for office, which can create a conflict with laws that guarantee free and fair elections.

Finally, during public consultations, minority groups can be adversely affected when discussions are carried out exclusively in the majority national language. This situation can result in lack of dialogue with and understanding of the minority.

You have studied and written about language rights and the law in the United States and your latest book addresses these matters in the European Union. What are some of the similarities and differences with regard to those issues in these different jurisdictions and within the EU itself?

Since the 1960s, the United States and its territories have seen a resurgence of claims for language recognition by Indigenous groups, Spanish speakers in the Southwestern states and Puerto Rico, Chamorro speakers in Guam (which only has about 10,000 speakers left), Chamorro and Carolinian speakers in the Northern Mariana Islands (with only about 30,000 and 3,000 speakers left respectively) and Samoan speakers in American Samoa (with about 50,000 left). Yet, in all these states and territories, English continues to be used as the main language of communication, while, with the exception of Spanish in Puerto Rico, Indigenous languages remain marginal players within their own societies or are becoming extinct, like Chamorro and Carolinian.

Similarly, with the exception of the European Court of Justice, which uses French as the working language, English is the main language of communication employed by EU institutions, while regional or minority languages such as Catalan (with 5.5 million speakers), Galician (with 5.5 million speakers) and Basque (with 800,000 speakers), as well as Arabic, Turkish and Urdu (each of which are spoken by millions of immigrants in the EU) remain ignored by EU legislation.

Indigenous languages in the United States and Canada are threatened and, in certain cases, rebounding somewhat through educational initiatives. What are the connections and implications vis-à-vis linguistic rights and policies?

Intensive immersion in the language offers the best learning environment to achieve fluency and keeping Indigenous languages alive. Often, immersion means the creation of “language nests,” where children and language beginners learn from proficient speakers. Initially, language nests were established in New Zealand by Māori elders who wished to teach children their native language. This model was subsequently adopted in Hawaii and by other Indigenous groups throughout the world, including the Cherokee in Oklahoma.

With the exception of Inuit in Greenland, all other Indigenous and tribal languages in North America need protection. For them, access to immersion and other language programs and methods should be a linguistic right.

Based on your research, what are some policy improvements related to language rights that should be made in the United States?

I believe there are three main policy improvements that should be made:

  • Facilitating the acquisition, maintenance and use of Indigenous languages in the United States and its territories where speakers of Indigenous languages reside. Examples of this appear in Norway and Sweden, where Sami and Finnish are prominently used by the government, the judiciary and in education.
  • Establishing bilingual education programs for immigrant children, like in California, where, under the law, bilingual education is offered whenever the parents of 30 or more students in a school, or 20 or more students in a single grade, request it.
  • Promoting and facilitating the process of naturalization, like in Ireland and Sweden, which invest considerable resources in teaching their national languages to immigrants. These countries do not, however, require language proficiency tests for naturalization, which might discourage immigrants and refugees from coming to the country or applying for citizenship.

What is your current research project?

man wearing a black t-shirt and sunglasses standing outdoors
At the new opera house in Oslo, Norway

In May 2019 I had the great honor to be invited to speak at the United Nations about Denmark’s language policy towards immigrant minorities. In my presentation, I condemned recent anti-immigrant regulations that specifically marginalize non-Western immigrant children in Danish schools and I called for the re-election of officials who support bilingual education. In addition, formal and informal conversations with other academics and United Nations personnel at the meeting piqued my interest in the Scandinavian region as a whole and fueled my new book project on language rights in Scandinavia.

The upshot of this is that I am presently writing a new book, under contract with Palgrave Macmillan, on language rights for Indigenous and immigrant minorities in the Scandinavian region as a whole. Language rights in Scandinavia run the gamut from favorable – for example, policies that encourage the use of Indigenous languages by the government, the judiciary and in education in Norway and Sweden — to adverse – for example, policies that ban bilingual education for immigrant children and make excessive demands in language proficiency requirements for residence and naturalization in Denmark, Norway and Iceland.

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