Linguistic human rights: What are they and how can we better protect them?

Ran Yi

In human rights studies much has been written and studied about civil, economic, political and social rights. Less attention has been paid to the linguistic human rights for migrants and minorities in justice-critical settings, such as courts, public and social services.1  A recent volume of The Handbook of Linguistic Human Rights provides a systematic understanding of the notion of linguistic human rights and cases of linguistic human rights violations (e.g. linguistic genocide)2 in geographically and socio-culturally diverse local, regional, national, supranational, and international contexts.

In a nutshell, linguistic human rights (LHRs) refer to the fundamental rights protecting language-related acts and values that are entrenched in domestic law and policies or in international treaties.4 It is the individual and collective right to choose the language/s for communication. It is further dissected into a series of core rights (e.g. the right to speak one’s language) and ancillary rights (e.g. the right to a translation or an interpretation from other languages and the right to learn the language). 

LHRs issues are particularly pertinent to immigrant minorities, Indigenous peoples, minorities (e.g. autochthonous, national, the Deaf, immigrant, refugee, asylum seeker), and minoritised groups/populations/people. 

Growing up in a multi-ethnic region co-habited by 53 ethnic minorities along the North Korean border, the author, like many ethnic minority girls in her hometown, experienced her schooling and education journey through the medium 
of the majority language. 

The establishment of landmark instruments such as the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)5 and the International Labour Organisation’s Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries6 meant the standard and norms of linguistic human rights were recognised globally. 

Knowing about LHRs is one thing, protecting such rights is another. To protect LHRs, interdisciplinary understanding and inter-professional collaboration are required to include diverse perspectives from policymakers, human rights advocates, sociolinguists, and educationalists. Particularly, sector engagement with national or local authorities is needed to assert linguistic justice.

Ran Yi is an Australian Human Rights Institute Associate.


1. See Ran Yi (2023) The promise of linguistic equity for migrants in Australian courtrooms: a cross-disciplinary perspective, Australian Journal of Human Rights, 29:1, 174-180. DOI: 

2. See Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (2020). Linguistic genocide. In: Fiona Greenland and Fatma Müge Göçek (eds), Cultural Violence and the Destruction of Human Communities. pp.58-76. London: Routledge.

3. See Ran Yi (2023). Review of The Handbook of Linguistic Human Rights. International Journal on Minority and Group Rights. DOI:

4. See the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (Barcelona Declaration). Retrieved from Accessed 27 April 2023.

5. See the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved from Accessed 27 April 2023.

6. See the International Labour Organization – Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169). Retrieved from Accessed 27 April 2023.