Conference Title: Constitutional Provisions and the Status of Previously Marginalised Languages

The Department of African Languages and Literature and the African Languages Research Institute (ALRI) at the University of Zimbabwe will co-host an academic conference on Constitutional provisions, changes and the status of previously marginalised languages at the University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe. The conference is planned for the 7th- 9th of August, 2017.


In multilingual polities, without an appropriate language law, the natural tendency to augment the social, linguistic, political and economic power of the dominant language community and the hegemony of its language at the expense of the numerical or linguistic and social minorities manifest itself unchecked. As such, language legislation is a very powerful language planning tool for ethnolinguistic minorities. Multilingual language policy planning and implementation involving ethnolinguistic minorities need to be based on a legal premise, namely, the Constitution. The Constitution is an official state text which serves as a source of information. It is the most authoritative and decisive source of information that enshrines the linguistic intentions of the state.

Legislating multilingual language policies through the Constitution is vital for multilingual policy implementation because at the decision-end, it provides a legal basis for the commitment of the motley of resources needed for the successful implementation of multilingual language policies. At the citizens’ end, it provides a means through which language-related rights violations can be redressed in a legal way (Mwaniki, 2004:247). Legislation also regulates and monitors the behaviour and actions of policy makers and all the stakeholders involved in the implementation of multilingual language policies. It also regulates and monitors the use of different languages. It provides the macro-framework that binds all stakeholders to act in judicial and socially responsible ways when responding to language-related challenges in society and also when committing public resources for the harnessing of language resources in society (Mwaniki, 2004:247).

Legislation sets norms that can be used to challenge laws, policies, beliefs and practices that tend to violate linguistic human rights of whatever form. Language legislation also insures the survival of the language and of its people (Bailey, 1998:217). Legislation enables government to give direction to policy implementers and enable them to operate within the law. It is one of the means through which state institutions attempt to regulate and promote equitable language use. As a language management tool, legislation defines and prescribes a framework for mapping the languages in a community’s macro repertoire to activity domains (Matras, 2009:45). The absence of statutory bodies or instruments encourages non-compliance while, on the other hand, their presence promotes a general goodwill towards change among implementing stakeholders. Language legislation discourages a laissez-faire implementation of the language policy among all stakeholders.

Language legislation as a form of language empowerment is meaningless unless it is accompanied by a detailed plan for implementation. This plan for implementation has to spell out time frames for the achievement of certain objectives, domains of policy application, incentives and indicate bodies set up to facilitate compliance and sanctions to discourage non-compliance. Implementing agents can ignore or selectively implement policy directives, because there are no penalties attached to it. As such, there is a dire need for language legislation to be accompanied by sanctions to discourage non-compliance and incentives to facilitate compliance. If non-observance does not attract any sanctions, the policy is as good as dead. Legislation ought to be visible, enforceable and accessible to all language speakers, especially in their languages. It must be systematic, unambiguous, rational and written down (Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997; Bamgbose, 1991; 2000; 2007; Webb, 2002; 2004; 2009; 2010; Skutnabb-Kangas, 2003; 2006; Mwaniki, 2004; 2010; 2011; 2012; Batibo, 2005; Lo Bianco, 2009; Skutnabb-Kangas & Dunbar, 2010; Skutnabb-Kangas & Heugh, 2010; Novak-Lukanovič & Limon, 2012; Ndlovu, 2013).

Language legislation must promote the recognition and respect for linguistic human rights as fundamental human rights. It must eliminate language based discrimination and enable speakers to preserve, promote and develop their languages. Language rights need to be entrenched in the fundamental principles of the Constitution because they are indispensable in the achievement of other founding values in the Constitution. Before the actual implementation of multilingual language policies, all the necessary legislative instruments, such as language acts and policies must be enacted. The development and implementation of such policies and acts must be informed by legislative instruments, such as the Constitution, among others. These policy documents and acts must engender a culture of constitutionalism and be the vanguards of the constitutional ethos. To premise language policies and acts on legislative instruments provides a substantial basis for their implementation. It gives credibility to language stipulations. It also provides the legal and licensing environment for policy implementation. In this light, language policies outside statutory guidelines are often ignored, disregarded or not taken seriously, with the result that they remain only on paper and not in actuality.

Commenting on language legislation through linguistic human rights instruments and declarations, Skutnabb-Kangas (2006:275-277) notes that binding educational clauses of human rights are riddled with opt-outs, modifications, alternatives and escape clauses. These opt-outs, alternatives, modifications and escape clauses permit reluctant states and policy makers and implementers to meet the requirements in a minimalist way which they can legitimate by claiming that a provision was not “possible or “appropriate” or “reasonably practicable”. This means that speakers of the concerned languages might, as far as possible and within the framework of the state’s education system or whatever sector, get some vaguely defined rights. Skutnabb-Kangas notes that the articles covering language issues are so heavily qualified that the speakers of the concerned languages are completely at the mercy of the state, policy makers and implementers.

Language legislation should therefore guard against these common opt-outs, modifications, escape clauses and alternatives and ensure the clauses are obligatory, positive and not vague. Skutnabb-Kangas (1998; 2003; 2006) further notes that in binding clauses, especially in binding educational clauses, two things often happen; one is that language disappears completely or it gets very weak treatment and much poorer treatment in legal instruments than other important human attributes. And in some cases, the articles on education in human rights instruments are silent about the right to choose the language in which the education is given. Skutnabb-Kangas argues that language is one of the most important human attributes which human beings are not supposed to be discriminated against. Consequently, there is need for a sound and enabling legal premise on which the revitalisation, promotion and maintenance of previously marginalised languages will be based and through which language-related rights violations can be redressed in a legal way.

Against this background, this conference aims to deepen understanding on the value of language legislation through the Constitution. Taking into account the afore-said views on language legislation, the conference will confront the apparent adequacy (or lack thereof) Constitutional provisions of the Constitutions of African countries and beyond in view of previously marginalised languages. It will address specific issues that are shaped by the Constitutional provisions with regards to language use, revitalisation, promotion, maintenance, development, teaching and documentation in order to ascertain the extent to which the current Constitutional provisions promote or constrain the growth and development of language-related professions and disciplines involving previously marginalised languages as well as assess whether the Constitutions of African countries and beyond presents a strong case for previously marginalised languages. The conference is structured around a number of themes, with a specific discipline taking responsibility for each theme.

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