Van Parijs’s book on Linguistic Justice

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 29, 2011

A few weeks ago, Philippe Van Parijs’s new book Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World was released by his publisher. Since he’s coming to my university to give a lecture on the topic of the book at the end of January, I’ve set up an online reading group on this book over at my Faculty’s blog. Feel free to join – we’ll move about one chapter a week and will start with the first one next Monday, December 5th.



Watson Ladd 11.29.11 at 9:28 pm

The call for a language tax doesn’t make sense. Why should I pay for speaking a language that everyone can learn and indeed does? The usefulness of English is proportional to the number of speakers, so its more beneficial for you to learn it then it was for me. The injustice of your mother speaking something not English to you in the crib has much more to do with her then with me.

There is also the question of language extinction. Thousands of languages may die over the next decade, and with each one dies what could teach us a lot about the brain.


jpe 11.30.11 at 4:02 am

Clearly, justice demands that we all learn esperanto.


Scott Martens 11.30.11 at 7:01 am

I don’t think I have the time right now to participate in the online reading group, and I haven’t read the book. It’s too bad because if van Parijs’ argument are the same ones found in “Europe’s three language problems”, there’s a lot that ought to be said.

Some of his linguistics are open to debate. He notes that English knowledge is much stronger in countries with Germanic national languages than Romance ones – something that sure seems true at the street level. But the reasons are not necessarily historical linguistic proximity. I don’t think it’s because English is also a Germanic language but because English has a phonological word-level stress pattern and Romance languages don’t. I note this in the appearance of greater fluency in Russians with poor English when compared to Spanish or French native speakers with similar competence. This small barrier makes it much harder for a francophone with poor English to make him or herself understood than for a German speaker with the same level of competence.

I also find some of his probabilistic models of motivations to learn a lingua franca a bit dodgy. And I have a long-standing complaint that he never undertakes historical and cross-cultural comparisons: The phenomenon of lingua francas is not new and not restricted to Europe. Where is the discussion of how Latin worked as a lingua franca in the early modern era and why it stopped working as one? Or Greek in the eastern Roman Empire? Or Aramaic in the Assyrian Empire? Or Mandarin? Or Bahasa? Or Swahili? Or Indian language policy? These are not irrelevant to the current situation, and restricting one’s perspective to the developed European states with multiple languages – Belgium, Canada, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Spain – really limits the scope.

I do, however, stand 100% behind his theory that dubbing is the best predictor of English second language competence. I have noticed that Flemish ESL curricula are, to put it in simple terms, crap. The only way to account for the relative fluency of middle class Flemings is that they watch American TV undubbed. Dubbing should be banned at the European level and accompanied by a strong subsidy scheme for broadcasting programming from other European countries as time-slot fillers instead of cheap English-language crap from Canada.

I also agree with van Parijs’s never-quite-made argument about the linguistic justice of illegal downloading. It does seem fairer to compensate non-native English speakers for their efforts by letting them rob Hollywood – the principal vector of English dominance. And considering that a direct redistributive tax to benefit those who have to learn English is not a real winner politically, it’s probably more viable as a compensatory mechanism.

His defense of territoriality in language policy is terribly Belgian. A Canadian would make the exact opposite arguments. His rejection of high-tech solutions is right on (and I should know since I’ve spent my career developing those high-tech solutions.) And I haven’t ever seen from him a really strong argument for linguistic diversity as a public good. I’m not convinced there are terribly good ones separate from argument for cultural diversity in general. I think the core argument should be that linguistic diversity creates spaces for alternative cultures to thrive, and cultural diversity creates robustness and adds value. That argument is unsatisfying for most people, but I think it’s the only argument we’ve got. The negative argument – one that is intellectually unsatisfying but politically unimpeachable – is that extinguishing linguistic diversity is costly and disempowering to those whose languages are to be extinguished. Ireland is the standard example: As long as people in Ireland spoke Irish, but everything related to the government or advanced education was conducted in English, the Irish were poor and disempowered. Only once Irish was all but extinct, and the Irish spoke nothing but English, did that situation change. The cost of eliminating linguistic diversity in the UK and Ireland was generations of misery and underdevelopment.


Harald Korneliussen 11.30.11 at 7:04 am

Nice to see a non-Esperantist (?) acknowledge that having your native language as the Lingua Franca is an advantage.

Watson Ladd: “Why should I pay for speaking a language that everyone can learn and indeed does?”

We in Norway are apparently among the best ESL speakers in the world, yet by far the most people from my country would not be comfortable participating in an online forum like this, like I do now. That includes many people who got top marks in English, after studying it in school for 3 hours per week for 8-10 years. You see plenty of otherwise brilliant people who struggle with English.

Language learning is hard. Yes, Esperanto is a wildly idealistic solution, but it at least acknowledges the problem – and when you come right down to it, an international tax on native English speakers is probably even less realistic than universal Esperanto in primary education…


Matt 11.30.11 at 2:48 pm

Thanks for this, Ingrid- I’ll try to follow it as I can, and it looks interesting. Van Parijs gave a talk at Penn based on this work a few years ago that I went to, and I had many of the same reservations as Scott above, and also thought that it depended on an implausible and especially implausibly strong version of luck egalitarianism, but Van Parijs is always interesting, so I’ll hope to follow along.
(Do you know anything about his other new book, on Rawls and Machiavelli? I’ve only seen the cover, but that sounds very interesting, too.)


Philip 11.30.11 at 3:08 pm

Harald, I’ve just been preparing a group of Norwegian students for the Cambridge Advanced Exam. They’re in the UK doing A’ Levels so they’re 16-18 years old and good students chosen by their school to come here to study. Their level of English is excellent, I’d say as good as native speaking A’ Level students.


Watson Ladd 11.30.11 at 5:39 pm

People seem to be assuming that nonnative speakers are hurt by English dominance. That isn’t the case: the existence of a lingua franca is a benefit to all those who speak it to the extent they are able to speak it. If a Swiss and a Russian talk, what language will they use? What does my speaking that same language do to hurt them? It’s really part of the benefit that 300 million people in the most economically developed country speak it natively. As said above this is a very strong form of luck egalitarianism, and one that I don’t support.

The cultural argument is strong in some ways but weak in others. For the speakers of a tiny language in the remote parts of Europe their form of life may be changed by speaking English extensively. But its hard to see how speaking a language no one else will learn is a benefit to those concerned. (Granted, language should not be a barrier to public services. But if we all speak one language, life is a good deal easier). Should we be worried that most of those who speak and read German do not know the Bavarian dialect at all?

That said language extinction has costs: it means that we lose grammaticality judgements that could shed light on linguistics. But we were able to read cuneiform despite it never being spoken in a millenium, even if we don’t know some basic words? On the other hand just keeping alive a language isn’t enough: Ashkenazi Jews have forgotten what insects are kosher, because it isn’t clear what the words mean. Imagine living on a desert island and having legends about a cow. Would you recognize one if you ran into it again? So the connection between culture and language is complicated, and while preserving one usually entails preserving the other, they can’t be separated out in preservation efforts.


MPAVictoria 11.30.11 at 6:33 pm

How about we start taxing tall people? As a short man I am statistically speaking likely to be paid less than a taller man and have more difficulty finding a mate. Indeed height is even more of an unfair advantage than speaking English. You can’t learn to be taller.


Jeffrey Davis 11.30.11 at 9:07 pm

A few years ago, we were sitting at a cafe in Copenhagen where we couldn’t help but hear the couple next to us flirting with each other. One was French, the other Spanish. They spoke a virtualy accentless English and used American slang better than we could. (We’re in our 60s.) How they came by that knowledge of the language I couldn’t say. Movies, music, and TV? Back in the early 80s, I worked with a Norwegian who had had many years of formal English training in school and he sounded an awfully lot like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets.


Tom Hurka 12.01.11 at 4:43 am

Why should the dominance of one language show, as van Parijs apparently says, a lack of respect for other languages? People don’t speak English — or German or Urdu or whatever — because they think it’s better than other languages. They speak it because it’s natural or convenient or what will help them get ahead.

If a lot of people buy vanilla ice cream because they like it, and that makes vanilla less expensive than other flavours, does that mean they’re disrespecting chocolate ice cream or the people who eat it?

“Lack of respect” arguments in political philosophy are almost always bogus, and this looks like another one in that category.


Harald Korneliussen 12.01.11 at 9:01 am

Philip, obviously Norwegian students who are in the UK doing A levels will be among the best non-native English speakers in their generation. They probably were very good to begin with, and few people decide to study abroad unless they are linguistically confident and socially outgoing (thus able to benefit greatly from immersion).

But the point is, there is a whole lot of Norwegians, maybe a majority, who will go out of school with not enough competence in English to participate in e.g. English online forums.


Ingrid Robeyns 12.01.11 at 2:43 pm

Matt: the Rawls-Machiavell book is almost entirely a set of reprinted paper. Not worth buying if you have access to a university library.

Tom Hurka: I haven’t started reading the book, but my first reaction is: there is a relationship between being able to speak the dominant language and valuable opportunities, and learning a language comes at a (high!) cost. You can forgo eating ice-cream without seriously jeopardizing valuable opportunities, but you can’t refuse to learn the dominant language (in case it’s not your mother tongue) if you want to access those opportunities. So while I don’t know whether there is an issue of disrespect involved, there does seem to be a prima-facie issue of social/distributive issue involved. But that’s not more than a starting intuition, obviously, it may well turn out to be a bad argument. We’ll hopefully find out over the next weeks.


Matt 12.01.11 at 2:47 pm

Thanks for the info on the book, Ingrid- I appreciate it.


Watson Ladd 12.01.11 at 3:00 pm

So it seems like the tax is justified on a principle that good luck must be punished. This is at least a valid argument: given the principle the conclusion follows. But a head tax doesn’t achieve it: the costs of learning a language are a one time cost, and could simply be redistributed by paying for education more generally. If learning English is free, what is the cost?


steve 12.01.11 at 3:14 pm

I think there should be a huge tax, or some other sort of substantial penalty, for not learning English. Wait, there is already. And people are learning English as a result. This proves the penalty idea would work as far as what language a person learns. But it is also thick with irony.

Another stupid revealed preference argument: on a blog where a compelling topic yields up to three hundred comments, this one has gotten 15.


Ralph Hitchens 12.01.11 at 3:50 pm

Have to say, I’ve always thought that language evolution is akin to the channels of the Mississippi River, or how those channels used to be — not easily subject to manmade intervention. Voting with the mouth, like voting with one’s feet.


Britta 12.01.11 at 5:18 pm

I’m curious as to who would have to pay the tax–would it be all anglophone countries, or only those for whom the population seemed relatively privileged? i.e. would, say, Jamaica or Zimbabwe have to pay? What about countries like India, which have English as an official language but it’s generally not people’s first language? Would Quebec be exempt from the tax? Language and linguistic privilege are about far more than the original denotational code you’re taught. Issues such as dialect, accent, race, class etc. all factor into one’s “linguistic capital” (to borrow from Bourdieu), and not all forms of English are considered equal. Moreover, research language bias has shown that students lectured to by a lecturer who speaks English with a heavy NW European accent, such as a German one see the speaker as educated and fluent in English, however a lecturer with a heavy non-European accent (e.g. Chinese) are seen as being non-proficient and poorly educated. Perceived fluency figures greatly into job opportunities in the global capitalist system–how do we rectify these sorts of perceptual biases? Does the author really think that a Dutch person who must learn English in school is relatively less well off than a Kenyan whose native language is English?


Watson Ladd 12.01.11 at 10:10 pm

Britta, while I share the thrust of that comment I think van Parijs is arguing for redistribution on the basis that this is one form of luck among others which should be counted. At least that’s the way I read the argument. So while establishing such a redistribution while bigger problems exist would not be a good thing, that’s distinct from the issue of the luck egalitarian principle supporting this redistribution.

You do raise an interesting question about status of dialects. Certainly this differs by region: a speaker with a heavy NW European accent in the Northeast is going to be respected much more then one with a Texan drawl. But that’s going to be very different in Fort Worth.


Meredith 12.02.11 at 5:11 am

Just to note that the person who knows both the language of another (including an oppressive other) and the language of a supportive and loyal community (“native language” or “mother tongue”?) has certain advantages over that other (even an oppressive other). The ploys of cunning that are available to such a person are not to be underestimated. Neither are the insights born of the multiple perspectives multi-lingualism can foster. Tax those ploys! Tax that sympathetic insightfulness!


Harald Korneliussen 12.02.11 at 8:09 am

I wish I could follow this online reading group thing. I’m absolutely an amateur, but I have at least read some Rawls, and my Esperanto is at least good enough to have followed lots of their discussions on linguistic justice ;)

What I’ve read of this book (some of the preview in Google Books) seems really interesting, but even if I had 30£ to burn on an obscure academic opinion book, it surely wouldn’t arrive here by monday.

I’ll check with the library of UiO.


John Quiggin 12.02.11 at 6:40 pm

Only marginally off-topic, I read today that Belgium finally has a government, and that the French-speaking PM is being criticised for his poor Dutch. I’d be fascinated to read your thoughts on this, Ingrid.


Ingrid Robeyns 12.03.11 at 7:33 am

John: this is like playing with fire, posting my views on di Rupo’s limited knowledge of Dutch… :-)
I’ll try to do a short post later this weekend, but in any case I’ll first put my armor on. (It will have to be short since I have two master theses to give feedback on, and the post on Van Parijs’s book to write.)


Ingrid Robeyns 12.05.11 at 10:40 pm

In case someone is still reading this, I’d just flag that I’ve put two posts on Spongia, a short one on the introduction (which contains a motivation for writing this book), and a post on the first chapter, in which Philippe Van Parijs defends the claim that the spread of English as the lingua franca should be accelerated, ultimately for the sake of global egalitarian justice. I won’t post further reminders (since the timetable is also available on Spongia – basically: one chapter a week), so here’s — just once — the link to the blog:

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