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Most education systems worldwide for Indigenous/tribal peoples, autochthonous, immigrant and refugee minorities, and minoritized groups involve linguicism. Many people recognize spontaneously the concept and the phenomena it identifies as soon as they hear the label. This entry will try to elaborate the concept somewhat more than in the definition.
Tove Skutnabb-Kangas
In press, in The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics: Malden, MA: Blackwell.
[A] Origins of the term
Robert Phillipson and I published almost 30 years ago a large collection of papers under the
title Linguicism Rules in Education (Phillipson & Skutnabb-Kangas, 1986). In one of my
articles in it, I defined the concept. I have mostly used the same definition, also reproduced in
Skutnabb-Kangas (1988, p. 13):
ideologies, structures and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate, regulate and
reproduce an unequal division of power and resources (both material and immaterial)
between groups which are defined on the basis of language.
Sometimes I have used “language/their mother tongue” at the end of the definition, for
clarification. Since linguicism is a concept created by me, in this entry I will use the first
person. My claim ever since has been that most education systems worldwide for
Indigenous/tribal peoples, autochthonous, immigrant and refugee minorities, and minoritized
groups (hereafter ITMs) involve linguicism (e.g., Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000; Skutnabb-Kangas
& Dunbar, 2010). Hundreds of other researchers and thousands of ordinary people have used
the concept (a Google search on 31 May 2015 gave 16,500 hits). Many people recognise
spontaneously the concept and the phenomena it identifies, as soon as they hear the label. In
this entry I will try to elaborate the concept somewhat more than in the definition.
The concept arose in comparison and parallel with other more established –isms, such as
racism, sexism, classism, and, later, ethnicism and ageism. I/we felt that there was equally
clear discrimination on the basis of which language/s people spoke or signed, natively or
otherwise, and how they spoke it, as in discrimination involving the social constructs of race,
gender, and class. But the discrimination on the basis of language or one’s mother tongue(s)
had no name; therefore a label was needed. Likewise, there is discrimination on the basis of
which language/s people do NOT speak/read/use/master. In many countries people who do
not know English or do not know it well are stigmatized, pitied, and seen as deficient, by
some others. In the same way, people whose mother tongue is not a “standard” variety of the
language they use are often stigmatized. Thus, linguicism can apply to (a) which language(s)
one uses; (b) how one uses them; and (c) which language(s) one does NOT use/know or one
is not competent in, all according to the norms of those who (arrogate to themselves the
power to) judge others by their languages. Linguicism can also occur intra-lingually (Lippi-
Green, 2012).
[A] Unpacking the definition
According to the definition, the perpetrators or the agents of linguicism are “ideologies,
structures and practices”. I will unpack each perpetrator in turn.
If monolingualism in, say, English, Chinese, or Russian is seen as preferable/ normal/
inevitable for ITMs, and the unlearning/forgetting of ITMs’ own languages is seen as a
necessary or at least worthwhile price to pay for this, we have a subtractive learning situation,
and this assimilationist either/or ideology reflects linguicism. Instead, in an integrationist
both/and ideology, dominant languages are learned additively, in addition to mother tongues,
and bi/multilingualism is seen as normal, achievable, and a positive resource.
If an educational system is organised so that all teaching (except possibly ITMs’ mother
tongues as subjects) happens through the medium of the dominant language and the teachers
are monolingual in it, we have a submersion learning situation, and the school’s structure
reflects linguicism. ITM children who do not, at least initially, know the teaching language,
are pushed out by the way the school is organised; the children do NOT drop out. As
Cummins (1989) and Thomas and Collier (2002), among others, have shown earlier, Kathleen
Heugh demonstrated, on the basis of research from all continents, that it takes 6-8 years for
a(n ITM) child to learn enough of an L2 to be able to learn THROUGH an L2 (e.g. Heugh et
al. 2011). A school structure that does not allow and encourage this is linguicist.
Most practices where people get unequal access to power and both material and immaterial
resources, based on their language/s, reflect linguicism. This unequal access is often produced
through attempts at colonising people’s consciousness, through three processes: glorification,
stigmatization , and rationalization. Firstly, dominant/majority groups, their languages,
cultures, norms, traditions, institutions, levels of development, observance of human rights
and so on are glorified. This includes claims about:
(a) what the languages are – for example, logical, rich, able to describe everything (e.g., in
science, because of their large vocabularies);
(b)what they have – for example, grammars, dictionaries, teaching materials, well-trained
teachers); and
(c) what they can do for you – such as open doors, function as a window onto the world,
enable you to talk to many people, get a good job, and so on.
Secondly, ITMs/subordinated groups, their languages, cultures, norms, traditions, institutions,
levels of development, observance of human rights, and so on are stigmatized, so that they
are seen as traditional, backward, not able to adapt to an advanced capitalist technological
information society, and so forth. In the third process, the relationship between the groups is
rationalized economically, politically, psychologically, educationally, sociologically, and
linguistically, so that what the dominant groups do is always normalised and made to seem
functional and beneficial to the minorities/subordinated groups. For instance, the dominant
group is "helping", "giving aid", "civilizing", "modernizing", "teaching democracy", "granting
rights", "protecting world peace", etc. These three processes help in reproducing the unequal
power relations between the groups. Language plays a major role in this.
When ITMs and their “characteristics” and “possessions” have been stigmatized, their
resources (both material and symbolic, cf. Bourdieu, 1977) cannot be converted into material
or immaterial resources (good salaries, long formal education) or to positions of power,
whereas the glorified dominant group’s resources can be thus converted. And this unequal
access in the conversion process can then be rationalized on the basis of the (presumed),
socially constructed deficits in the subordinated groups - and their languages.
Unequal access to power and resources is often multicausal, and differences based on
language often overlap with other socially constructed differences (e.g., race, gender, class,
minority status, political opinion, etc). Therefore, it is often difficult to separate
discrimination on the basis of language from other types of discrimination. Also, language
differences often get the blame in conflict situations, where lack of linguistic human rights
(LHRs) coincides with lack of other rights. Here denial of LHRs is often legitimated by
claiming that it is language differences that directly cause a conflict. The fallacious logic
goes: “if minorities are granted language rights, they reproduce themselves as minorities, and
this is what leads to the disintegration of the state”. In reality, unequal access to economic
resources or political power is much more likely the main causal factor in conflicts. This
caveat notwithstanding, it is also the case that people may be mobilized to demanding rights
also on the basis of language. Often granting language rights works towards preventing
conflicts. A group/nation with full LHRs may be satisfied with autonomy, instead of
demanding independence. In any case, in the long run, LHRs also lead towards better access
to resources such as better formal education, and, through this, better jobs and more
(democratic) political participation.
[A] Contested understandings of power and language
There are various concepts of power, and of language, relevant for analysing and resisting
linguicism. Some mainly postmodernist researchers (e.g., Blommaert, Makoni & Pennycook,
see below) see power as something discoursal: it is created and co-constructed, and it
manifests itself only in discourse situations where people interact and negotiate. In this view,
nobody can have power. Others (e.g.,Galtung, Bourdieu) see power as something that an
individual or a group can have access to, depending on the acceptability and validation of the
material and immaterial resources that they have and the positions that they fill because their
resources are/have been validated by those who are already in positions of power. Of course
these power-holders defend their privileges. Thus people’s and groups’ resources (including
their languages) can in this view be constructed as more – or less – convertible into positions
of power. The claim that one can “have” power is rejected by those who see power as only
being created locally and contingently. They claim that the other position represents
reification, thingifying something that does not exist as such.
Some of these post-modernists (including researchers like Blommaert, 2005: 390, and
Makoni and Pennycook, 2005:138) also claim that languages (including ITM languages) do
not exist. We are only supposed to have idiosyncratic ways of ““languaging””. “Language” is
a verb and has no reality outside the context where we utter something. These researchers see
languages as momentary “movement” only. That means that none of us can “have” a mother
tongue either. Mother tongues as concepts and claiming them is seen as ‘outmoded’
(Canagarajah 2005: 443), ‘irrelevant’, ‘quaint’ or ‘antedeluvian’ (May 2005: 321) and worse.
Thus wanting mother-tongue-based multilingual education is seen as working against the
interests of ITMs (Blommaert 2005: 60). This position can, unfortunately, often support
neoliberal political forces, also by negating the lived experience of many ITMs. Our position,
however, is to see languages as constantly changing (as everything living does), but at the
same time also seeing them as “real”, more concrete.
I, with many others, see power, and languages, in both ways, depending on the purpose of the
analysis of power relations, including linguicism. Neither power nor language are either/or
concepts. I see power as both a process but also as something that one can “have” in certain
situations. We can equally well imagine that what we call language can sometimes be
seen/behave as a movement or process (i.e., “to language” as a verb). Other times it can be
seen or behave in a way that corresponds to something more concrete, something that one can
“have” and claim ownership of.
Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Niels Bohr showed already at the beginning of the 1900s
with their experiments that light could behave both as waves and as a particle. Likewise
Einstein showed that space and time are not unchanging, and the same for everybody; they
can vary on the basis of, for instance, the movement of the observer. My both/and view is that
one has to be able also to see languages as something that can be captured, counted, learned,
even written down, also in dictionaries - even if languages are never stable; they change all
the time, as do the hierarchising relations between languages; these are processes.
Sociolinguists might be able to learn from physics. There is no contradiction between treating
languages as processes and, at the same time, as concrete. Claiming that it is only one or the
other is illogical and unhelpful either/or thinking, in a world of both/and/and. People must
also be able to claim languages: “X is MY language”, or “X and Y are my mother tongues”.
Claimants of languages/mother tongues must have the right to agency; it is speakers (and
signers) who decide whether they “have” languages/ mother tongues, and what these are. No
outside researcher has the right to do this. It is thus also linguicist behaviour to deprive ITMs
of their agency if outsiders decide whether they (can) have a mother tongue (or two) and then
to proceed to hierarchising the languages and their speakers on the basis of language, all at the
same time as claiming that languages do not exist.
[A] Genocide and intention
When continuing uncontested, linguicism can lead to genocidal ideologies, structures, and
practices. Many of those who object to the claim that most formal education for especially
Indigenous and tribal children is today in many respects genocidal, react emotionally,
rejecting the idea out of hand. Often they do not examine the evidence or know what genocide
is legally. The UN International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime
of Genocide (E793, 1948) has five definitions of genocide in its Article 2 (emphasis added):
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with
intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its
physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Many people think that only physically killing a group is genocide. Skutnabb-Kangas and
Dunbar (2010) have shown through a thorough legal examination and many examples that
both earlier and present-day ITM education often fulfills the criteria for genocide according to
at least definitions 2b and 2e, educationally, sociologically, psychologically, and
economically. More court cases are needed to ascertain that it is genocidal also juridically;
some of the concepts in the definition need further clarification, mainly the concept of intent.
It is the same concept that needs clarification in the linguicism definition quoted in the
beginning of this entry – an intention is implied in the phrase “used to legitimate…”. Used by
whom/what? Does that mean that we can only call something linguicism if the perpetrators of
linguicism intend to discriminate (and to legitimate)? And how do we assess if an institution
or structure or ideology “has an intention” in how it is being “used”?
There are several recent examples already where lawyers conclude that the “intent” need not
be expressed directly and openly. No state declares: “we intend to harm children”. Instead, it
can be deduced from the results. In other words, if the state organizes educational structures
which are known to lead to negative results, this can be seen as “intent” in the sense of Art. 2.
Ringelheim (2013, pp. 104-105), for instance, discusses a landmark judgment where the
European Court of Human Rights
makes clear that no intention to discriminate is required for the discrimination to exist: the
sole fact that a measure has a disparate impact on a minority is sufficient to establish the
existence of differential treatment – whatever the intent behind the policy. This opens the
possibility of addressing structural or systemic forms of discrimination.
Likewise, Päivi Günther (2003, 2006) concludes that discrimination can be structural, without
any conscious intent on the part of the perpetrator. When discrimination has been built into a
system, those who manage the system (the “perpetrators”) need not themselves have
discriminatory (e.g., linguicist) ideologies or intentions – the system does the discrimination
for them. Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas (forthcoming) provide further examples.
[A] Conclusion
Much of the literature about how to recognise, analyse, and, above all, counteract other
discriminating and hierarchising –isms (racism, classism, sexism, imperialism, ethnicism,
ageism, among others) is relevant for research into and action against linguicism. Work on
linguicism can also introduce new aspects to the struggle against other –ism. There is enough
to do.
Cross-references (to other entries in the Encyclopedia)
References (cited in text)
Blommaert, Jan (2004). Rights in Places. Comments on Linguistic Rights and Wrongs. In Freeland,
Jane & Patrick, Donna (eds). Language Rights and Language Survival. Sociolinguistic and
Sociocultural Perspectives. Manchester, UK & Northampton, MA: St. Jerome Publishing, 55-65.
Blommaert, Jan (2005). Situating language rights: English and Swahili in Tanzania revisited. Journal
of Sociolinguistics 9/3, 390-417.
Bourdieu, P. (1977 [French original published in 1972]). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge,
UK: Cambridge University Press.
Cummins, Jim (1989). Empowering Minority Students. Sacramento, California Association for
Bilingual Education.
Gynther, Päivi (2003). On the Doctrine of Systemic Discrimination and its Usability in the Field of
Education. International Journal of Minority and Group Rights 10: 45-54. [the last name is
misspelled as Gynter in the article].
Gynther, Päivi (2007). Beyond Systemic Discrimination: Educational Rights, Skills Acquisition and the
Case of Roma. Erik Castrén Institute Monographs on International Law and Human Rights series.
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Heugh, Kathleen, Benson, Carol, Gebre Yohannes, Mekonnen Alemu and Bogale, Berhanu (2011).
Implications for Multilingual Education: Student Achievement in Different Models of Education in
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Sustainable Diversity Work. From Periphery to Center. New York: Routledge, 239-262.
Lippi-Green, Rosina (2012). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the
United States. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.
Makoni, Sinfree & Pennycook, Alastair (2007). Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages. In
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Phillipson, Robert & Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove (1986). Linguicism Rules in Education, Parts 1-3.
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London & New York: Routledge.
Ringelheim, Julie (2013). Between identity transmission and equal opportunities: the multiple
dimensions of minorities’ right to education. In Henrard, Kristin (ed.). The interrelation between
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Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove (1988). Multilingualism and the Education of Minority Children. In Skutnabb-
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Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters, 9-44 (revised version of Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove (1986).
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Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove (2000). Linguistic genocide in education - or worldwide diversity and human
righs? Mahwah, NJ & London, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 818 pp. South Asian updated
edition in 2008, Delhi: Orient Longman. Italian completely updated translation will appear in 2012.
Skutnabb-Kangas Tove and Dunbar, Robert (2010). Indigenous Children’s Ed ucation as Linguistic
Genocide and a Crime Against Humanity? A Global View. Gáldu Čála. Journal of Indigenous
Peoples' Rights No 1, 2010. Guovdageaidnu/Kautokeino: Galdu, Resource Centre for the Rights of
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