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We Need to Talk about Language: Irish Judge’s Discriminatory Remarks

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We Need to Talk about Language: Irish Judge’s Discriminatory Remarks
JACQUELINE BRANDWAYN - © JACQUELINE BRANDWAYN JACQUELINE BRANDWAYN

One would think that in Europe we are past blatant episodes of discrimination, but reality has its way of exceeding our worst assumptions.

On 24 May, the Irish Independent published an article with a rather shocking title: Judge 'sick' of defendants seeking court translators: 'No need when they go buy hooch’.

This might all seem like clickbait, but the wording reflected the real story perfectly. Miriam Walsh, a District Court judge in the Republic of Ireland stated she was "sick to the back teeth" about defendants looking for interpreters to assist them in court proceedings when they have been living in Ireland for years. The defendant was a foreign national who had been living in Ireland for five years, and he had pleaded guilty for having assaulted two people in a takeaway restaurant while drunk. Judge Walsh made the point that interpreters are expensive and that those costs are sustained by taxpayers. She voiced her discontent claiming that "he [the defendant] didn’t need an interpreter with him when he went to buy alcohol, or when he went shopping. They know more English than we know ourselves." It is already problematic that a District Judge, who should be neutral and super partes, would express such striking opinions about a defendant. But the Judge went on making a more generalist remark on foreign nationals living in Ireland: "They have no need for an interpreter when they go to buy their hooch. They don’t need assistance when they’re signing on for social welfare."

The episode gained a lot of attention especially from anti-racist advocates and NGOs. The director of Irish Network Against Racism (INAR) Shane O’Curry pointed out that "this really underlines the points made by many anti-racism advocates that there should be mandatory anti-racism training for all members of the judiciary." This is an absolute valid point, although it must be stated that the increased number of requests for interpreters in a court of law in the Republic of Ireland have come from European citizens: in the past two years, the three most common foreign languages used in trials and the most common languages for which an interpreter was required were Polish (1,962), Romanian (1,519) and Lithuanian (1,005). Can we really talk about racism if all people involved are of the same color – in this case white (assuming that the European migrants were white in these cases)? Not that stripping the episode of the racial discrimination makes it any more acceptable: denying someone of an interpreter in a legal proceeding means depriving them of the possibility of fully understanding what is happening and therefore contradicting the principle that everyone is equal before the law.

Yet, the comment of the judge showcases another form of discrimination, one which often overlaps with racism, but is in itself directed towards the language that a person speaks. We tend to think of the modern nation state as monolithically monolingual, but truly linguistic diversity has always been the rule rather than the exception in most countries.

In addition to national minorities, whose rights are recognized under the European Charter of Minority Rights, Europe too has seen a drastic change in its demolinguistic structure due to the past century’s mass migrations. Nowadays, most European countries have a majority who speak the dominant language, one or more minority groups who speak the recognized minority language, migrant groups who have been residents for years or even generations, newly relocated migrants from different backgrounds, from asylum-seekers to temporary residents from other fellow EU countries. Yet language rights for people who are not part of an officially recognized minorities are very often overlooked. There is a strong need to bring linguistic inclusion into the policymakers’ debate, to make sure that the people who speak a language that is different from the dominant one, still have access to at least the basic services.

Questions of language rights and linguistic inclusion have been addressed since the 1980s, but in most recent years issues regarding language have been at the centre of a very vivid debate. In the 1990s, Tove Skuttnab-Kangas and Robert Phillipson defined this phenomenon as linguicism, namely "ideologies and structures that are used to legitimate, effectuate and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources between groups which are defined on the basis of language"1. In more recent times, the inequalities in accessing opportunities due to language barriers have been described as "linguistic disadvantages"2 or "linguistic unease"3. Hence, having acknowledged that this diversity exists, the question is how to manage it. The monolingual approach, the one that the Irish judge subtly advocates, would call for every one of these people to be proficient in the official language of the country. Although reasonable, this approach does not take into account that learning a language requires time and resources. What to do in the meantime? The general understanding is that at least the most basic services should be provided despite any language barrier: Andrew Shorten defines this access as "supplementary inclusion measures", which are intended to "complement rather than displace the opportunity to learn the majority language". But what are the basic services? Gazzola, Wickström and Fettes4 identify them as:

  • Law and order, i.e., judicial authorities such as courts and tribunals, and public security systems (police and prisons).
  • Administration, i.e., the general registry office, the tax office and migration office, including relevant public communication in these areas.
  • Essential public services such as the public health care system (e.g., hospitals) and emergency centres, especially for asylum-seekers and refugees.

The question might still be: but why? Why should states implement fair language policies, why should they provide supplementary inclusion measures at all? Ultimately, why should a country worry about being linguistically just? The answer to that question touches upon different aspects, from legal obligations to moral considerations and even economic trade-offs. Linguistic disadvantage might create situations that go against general principles of law: such as the right of a fair trial, the right of body integrity and to have medical assistance (in the case of healthcare). In addition to that, disregarding linguistic diversity might be much more costly in the long run: people who cannot access public healthcare or who cannot interact with the public administration might decide to leave, resulting in a particular country’s workforce diminishing (Gazzola and Grin have talked expansively on the trade-offs of implementing inclusive language policy). People who speak a different language are not always necessarily isolated from the society and usually work and pay taxes, which makes them as economically valuable as any other majority-language speaker. Last, but certainly not least, it is considered a "prerogative" of democratic countries to do as much as possible to ensure equal rights to its inhabitants.

Hence, the comments of the Irish judge underline how much a conversation on language and access to services is overdue. Discrimination on the base of language cannot be acceptable, especially when said discrimination arises from a person that represents the state’s institutions. Conversely, there is a strong need for a debate on fair language policies, in particular within the European Union, where attention to language is part of the funding bricks of the organization itself. The COVID-19 pandemic and the inequalities in accessing healthcare services due to language barriers have already elevated attention to the necessity of linguistic inclusion: Ingrid Piller defined the COVID-19 pandemic as a "mass communication challenge"5. A challenge that, unfortunately, not a lot of actors were able to properly respond to. The episode of a judge being "sick" of the request for interpreters shows that the challenge is still very much open.

1: Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove and Robert Phillipson. "Linguicide and Linguicism". In Phillipson, Robert & Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. Papers in European language Policy. ROLIG Papir 53. Roskilde: Roskilde Universitetscenter,Lingvistgruppen, 1995. 83-91.
2: Shorten, Andrew. "Immigration, language and disadvantage." Nations and Nationalism, 2022.
3: Iannàccaro, Gabriele, and Vittorio Dell’Aquila. "On Linguistic abilities, multilingualism, and linguistic justice." Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, European and Regional Studies 9.1, 2016. 49-54.
4: Gazzola, Michele, Bengt-Arne Wickström, and Mark Fettes. "Towards an index of linguistic justice." Working Paper no. 20-1, Research Group "Economics and Language" (REAL), 2020.
5:Piller, Ingrid. "Linguistic diversity in a time of crisis", 2020. Available at: https://www.languageonthemove.com/linguistic-diversity-in-a-time-of-crisis/
Cecilia Gialdini

Cecilia Gialdini

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https://doi.org/10.57708/b122124337
Gialdini, C. We Need to Talk about Language: Irish Judge’s Discriminatory Remarks. https://doi.org/10.57708/B122124337

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