Political Science Democracy and Minority Language Recognition
Amy H. Liu, Mike Medeiros
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0308


Language is one of the most important markers of a distinct group identity: It brings members together from the inside, and it demarcates boundaries from the outside. Accordingly, it is a common assumption in the literature on the politics of language—whether it is political science, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, or area studies—that minority groups want their languages recognized (or, at a minimum, left alone and not eradicated) by the government. But recognition of minority languages is inherently a political process. It requires the government to acknowledge that the vernacular spoken by the minority group is distinct from that of the majority (i.e., it is a language). When governments dismiss a vernacular as simply a derivative of the majority’s (i.e., it is a dialect), it suggests that speakers of that vernacular are inferior. Moreover, recognition requires some awareness to the differing language ideologies (i.e., how society should be linguistically organized). When the ideology of the politically dominant group is the only ideology in consideration, this influences the type of language policies. And whether governments acknowledge minority language ideologies and minority demands for linguistic recognition depends on a number of factors. One factor is whether the minority group is concentrated in a regional territory. Another factor is whether the political institutions in the country are generally more power sharing (e.g., proportional electoral rules and federalism). How the government accommodates minority languages—if it does, and if so, to what extent—can have far-reaching implications. Failure to accommodate minority demands can lead to intergroup social tensions, if not outright violent conflicts. Moreover, expecting minorities to learn a language that is not native to them—and especially if it is linguistically distant—can have economic ramifications, including higher levels of poverty and lower levels of literacy. However, by recognizing minority languages, governments allow for trust to build. This can manifest between members of different ethnic groups or among minorities toward the state. How governments accommodate minority languages can also affect local attitudes toward immigrants (e.g., when are they more likely to hold nativist viewpoints) and the assimilation of immigrants (e.g., what explains why some immigrant communities struggle to learn the language of the host country).


The recognition of minority languages is inherently political. First, it requires a definition of who is a minority group. To acknowledge a subset of the population as merely part of the larger population denies them a distinct culture. Second, linguistic recognition necessitates a definition of what is a language. To dismiss the vernacular of a minority group as simply a dialect ensures that the government is under no obligation to recognize the vernacular; in fact, it can be the motivation for repression and forced standardization in the majority vernacular. And third, if the government does decide to acknowledge the minority language, this raises the question of what recognition entails.

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