By Tyler Kopp, class of 2020 and Human Rights Certificate student

This January, I had the privilege of attending the 19th annual Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights, “The Right to Speak: Examining Language in the Framework of Human Rights.” Through two keynote speakers, a series of panels, and a day trip to a linguistic justice-focused organization, the conference opened diverse rights discussions around topics of systemic linguicism, language revitalization, the language of human rights, and how human rights relate with linguistic justice.

The conference began with a keynote address from two staff members at Wikitongues, a non-profit that aims to revitalize languages and preserve oral tradition by documenting all languages in the world online. The speakers discussed how histories of forced assimilation have threatened linguistic and cultural diversity for centuries and explained their work as a way of joining global efforts to promote language access. Wikitongues’s model relies on the exchange through the Internet, which brings up questions of access. After all, many people do not have the resources to record a video of them speaking their language and upload it online. While that challenge is important to recognize, it’s impressive that Wikitongues has received videos of over 350 languages since it was founded in 2014.

The following morning, the first panel focused on indigenous language revitalization. Speakers of Cherokee, Hawaiian, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi spoke about white, Anglophone institutions — namely the U.S. state — that have occupied indigenous land for hundreds of years and tried their hardest to eliminate the rich linguistic and cultural histories of indigenous groups. It was fitting to begin the series of panels with a clear acknowledgement that Chicago (and Durham, and the city that you, reader, are dwelling in) is stolen and occupied land.

Later that day, I went with a small group to the office of Language Empowers All People (LEAP), a non-profit that aims to build opportunities for young people through linguistic empowerment. The staff at LEAP walked us through some exercises they often do with high school students, wherein they offer advice on how to communicate actively using clear voice intonation, body language, and other aspects of communication. Honestly, the premise troubled me, because it at times was very prescriptive and, to me, represented aspects of linguistic colonization that purports that there is a “correct” or “good” way to speak English (or whatever language). At the same time, LEAP works primarily with low-income people in Chicagoland and has evidence for how their approaches have increased educational and employment prospects for some marginalized communities, especially Black Chicagoans. To me, this brings up a language-focused iteration of a common question: within the confines of hegemonic linguicism and racism, can working within that system eventually liberate people from the linguist and racist realities many face every day?

The final panel’s theme focused on “the language of human rights.” The panelists discussed the role of language access in having one’s human rights protected, and how language can be used to exclude, or empower, communities. Azadeh Shahshahani discussed her immigrants’ rights work in the U.S. South, tracing the themes of the panel to personal experiences with migrants going through immigration proceedings with lacking or nonexistent language access. Hadeis Safi spoke about their experience working with trans and gender non-conforming young people in Chicago, and how language can be an access point for people who have historically been marginalized because of their gender and sexuality. Though all the panels were great, I enjoyed this one the most. As someone who studies migration policy in a human rights context, and someone who has recently begun to embrace their more fluid gender identity, I learned a ton from the panelists and had some great conversations with fellow delegates afterward.

I’ve studied Spanish since I was 15 years old, and since that first day of learning, I’ve never wanted to stop. Why is it that when I tell people I’m studying Spanish, many enthusiastically respond with a comment about how I’m developing a useful/marketable skill? I won’t deny that having Spanish as a skill on my resume looks nice, especially within the hyper-professionalized context of Duke, where I’ve been conditioned to look for some kind of long-term neoliberal utility in everything I do as a student. But such a capitalist, colonial framework of language diversity carries a lot of baggage.

Decolonizing and decapitalizing my thinking around language is tough, necessary work, and this was one of the focuses of the final keynote of the conference. Dr. Ana Celia Zentella, an anthro-political linguist at the University of California, San Diego, brilliantly explained how power manifests in language, specifically tracing how the hegemony of English in the U.S. strips speakers of other languages of their agency and power. She traced how racism and classism manifest in linguistic discrimination, which is often a more veiled attack that explicitly racist comments. Offering examples like “you can’t even understand them” or “they sound so stupid with that accent” — remarks I’ve heard from classmates every semester I have attended Duke — Dr. Zentella highlighted our overwhelming complicity in acts of linguistic discrimination. As the closing speaker, she encouraged my fellow delegates and me to call those things out.

This conference gave me a unique opportunity to connect with students around the country in conversations around language access and linguistic human rights. Before I attended, the conference felt like a symbolic culmination of so much of my work as a student studying human rights. Really, though, in challenging me to think more about how language relates with human rights, and in connecting me with people engaged in language justice around the country, the conference now feels more like a springboard for how I will continue learning about and advocating for human rights after I graduate. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to attend this conference, and I’m looking forward to developing my thinking more to best promote language justice moving forward.



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