Language Rights, Policies and Practices in Linguistically Diverse Societies: Are Current Legal Orders Addressing the Needs and Concerns of Persons Belonging to Language Minorities as well as those of the Administration?

Bernaerts’ doctoral research deals with the interactions between administrative authorities and persons belonging to language minorities, whether legally recognized or not. This topic is particularly relevant in linguistically diverse societies, where linguistic obstacles might arise in the course of these interactions.

This research aims at providing an insider’s perspective – from the point of view of both administrative authorities and persons with another home language than the dominant or official language of the language area in which they reside – on how the relevant actors are dealing with linguistic diversity in administrative settings. The research focuses on the Sorbian minority and Turkish speakers in Germany, as well as on French and Turkish speakers in the Dutch language area of Belgium.

The research project focuses on three issues:

Views on the administrative language

The study examines how the involved actors view the language used in administrative settings. On the one hand, there is the importance that state actors, including government officials and civil servants, attach to the administrative language. On the other hand, there are the views of persons belonging to language minorities on the use of their language in the public sphere, especially in their interactions with administrative services.

The legal framework

The second part describes the international, national and local legal norms that are applicable to the language usage in these interactions. States are often very reluctant to recognize rights to use minority languages in interactions with administrative authorities, leading to a wide variety of approaches by states and local authorities. The interactions between civil servants and people who speak a language at home other than the dominant or official language will be analysed in the light of these diverse legal frameworks.

Current practices and needs within the existing legal frameworks

The third part, the core of this research, provides ethnographic accounts of these interactions between street-level bureaucrats and residents. As such, it shows how ideas and legal norms involved in their interactions are negotiated in practice. This part also examines the needs that the involved actors identify, such as linguistic needs on the ground and the need for (further) juridification (through individual or collective rights) of the use of language within administrative settings.

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