Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: LANGUAGE POLICY from The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences
Definition and History

Language policy studies the regular choices among varieties and variants within a speech community – the language practices of members of the community, their beliefs about the values to be assigned to the varieties, and efforts by individuals or groups with or claiming authority to modify the practices or beliefs of other speakers. Practices, beliefs, and management can be studied separately, although they turn out to be interdependent.

Early language managers were the Sanskrit and Arabic grammarians who guarded the purity of sacred texts, the medieval European rulers who switched from Latin to the vernacular for legal matters, and the language nationalists in the nineteenth century who made their national language different from that of their previous ruler.

Einar Haugen (1966) described how rival political ideologies supported competing invented varieties of Norwegian and compromised by requiring schoolchildren to learn both. In the 1960s, scholars became interested in the language-planning problems of postcolonial Africa and Asia (Fishman, Ferguson, and Das Gupta 1968). They focused on status planning (making one variety of language official or designating it for school use) and corpus planning (changes in the language itself, such as standardizing it or providing it with a writing system or new terminology) (Kloss 1966). Others concentrated on the cultivation and standardization of developed European languages (Nekvapil 2007).

In status policy, the problem was to decide between the demands of contending varieties; as a decision depended on nonlinguistic values, such as the power of social or ethnic or economic groups, language planners had little real influence. There was work to do in language academies or in writing textbooks to purify the linguistic usage of schoolchildren. In the 1970s, some scholars tried to evaluate the effect of corpus planning, but it proved easier to keep doing it than to study its effectiveness (Fishman 1977). Language policy expanded when Robert L. Cooper (1989) added a third area, language-acquisition planning, or language-education management, the effort to increase the number of speakers. Related is language diffusion, governments working to spread their language outside their political boundaries (Cooper 1982).

Rights and Theories

In the last half century, a further development has been the study and promotion of human or civil rights associated with language (Laitin and Reich 2003; May 2005; Skutnabb-Kangas, Phillipson, and Rannut 1995). Building on principles first proposed after World War I, several international covenants of language rights for minorities have been formulated, and some have been adopted by international bodies such as UNESCO and the European Community; a smaller number have been ratified by nation-states, and a few have been implemented.

There is no generally accepted theory of language policy. Thomas Ricento (2001), in fact, argues that there cannot be one. However, Joshua A. Fishman (1991) has presented a model of reversing language shift, which includes a graded intergenerational disruption scale intended both to describe the state of a language and its likelihood of being maintained and to suggest how to resist further loss or reestablish earlier strength. Bernard Spolsky (2004) has proposed that language policy has three components (language practices, language ideology or beliefs, and language management), and has sketched a theory based on this proposal. Jiří Nekvapil (2006), following Bjoern Jernudd and J. V. Neustupný (1987), has put forward a theory of language management, ranging from individual self-correction to the organized management of all micro and macro levels. Detailed descriptions of language policy such as Grenoble (2003), Kaplan and Baldauf (2003) and Zhou (2004) have started to clarify the complex dimensions that a theory must handle.

The Politics of Language Policy

One of the most critical facts or beliefs about language varieties concerns their power. There are many nation-states that assume monolingualism to be ideal and combine this assumption with a belief in the value, beauty, efficiency, and desirability of their own national variety. This is true of English-speaking nations, although it is challenged by counterassertions in South Africa, which has a long tradition of claims for Afrikaans and has recently extended nominal recognition to nine African languages, and in Canada by the language-related claims of Quebec for independence. The belief was first manifested in Spain, which continued its search for purity after the expulsion of Moors and Jews with a proclamation carried to the New World of the value of Spanish; this resulted in the virtual destruction of Native American languages. The belief in the importance of a single national variety was adopted by the Jacobins during the French Revolution and gradually implemented in France and French territories (Ager 1999): The difficulty of its implementation continues to be demonstrated by the need to pass new laws and regulations. German Romanticism and nationalism (Fishman 1973) provided an ideological base with the proclamation of the truth of “one nation, one language.” Another example of ideological monolingualism is Japan, which during its period of colonial expansion required conquered peoples to switch to Japanese, and which has only recently taken note of minority languages (Katsuragi 2005).

Commonly, the existence of two or more major languages within a single nation-state or confederation is associated with political conflict. One resolution is to favor a single variety, either that spoken by the majority or that controlled by the dominant elite. In the Soviet Union, a Lenin-inspired policy of recognizing minority languages to speed up the spread of communism was replaced under Stalin by a Russification policy (Grenoble 2003; Lewis 1972). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the newly independent states reasserted the significance of their territorial languages, so that currently each of the former Soviet states (including Russia itself) appears to be working toward monolingualism in the territorial language (Landau and Kellner-Heinkele 2001; Ozolins 2003).


A second solution to problems associated with having multiple major languages within a single nation-state is territoriality. India tried to base its internal political divisions on language. The partition into a Hindu-dominated India and Moslem-dominated Pakistan was paralleled by a language-management effort to divide what was previously considered a single language, Hindustani, into two – Hindi written in Devanagari script and Urdu with Perso-Arabic script (Annamalai 2001). The splitting up of India into states reflected major language differences, although it could not capture the complexity of a nation with 2,000 varieties. Central Europe and the Balkans repeated this process, as the partition of Czechoslovakia has led to official status for Czech and Slovak (Neustupný and Nekvapil 2003), and the division of Yugoslavia has now led to efforts to distinguish Serbian and Croatian (Pranjkovic 2001).

Belgium and Switzerland use territoriality to resolve language conflict. Externally, both are believed to be bilingual. In fact, Belgium is divided into language regions, some of which are officially French-speaking, others officially Dutch-speaking, and a few officially German-speaking. Only Brussels is officially bilingual. The varieties spoken in these regions are neither Dutch nor French but regional dialects; as a result, 40 percent of Belgian high school students report that they are taught in a language that they do not speak at home (Aunger 1993). In Switzerland, each canton establishes its own language policy, choosing among German, French, Italian, and Romansch. Knowledge of a second language (other than the expanding use of English associated with globalization) is no better than in other European countries (Harlow 2004; Hürdegen 2001).

The special language problems of Africa were produced by the fact that the borders drawn by colonizing European powers in the nineteenth century did not coincide with ethnic, tribal, or linguistic boundaries. After independence, African states had to choose among a variety of languages, most of which were also spoken in a neighboring states (Bamgbose 2000). Colonial educational policy had favored the use of European metropolitan languages, absolutely in the case of French and Portuguese colonies and, after initial use for a few years of local vernaculars, in British colonies. Partly because choice of any one vernacular would provide excessive power to its speakers, partly because the elite already spoke the metropolitan language, and partly because of inertia, postindependence efforts to establish the status of African languages have generally failed (Phillipson 1992).

Globalization and Local Resistance

Globalization has a major impact on language policy. One effect has been the unparalleled diffusion of English, the most widely used second language in most of the world. English is the favored first foreign language in all European countries, spreading also into former Soviet nations. In Asia, English is the lingua franca for intercommunication among Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, and Thais. International corporations, even those located in European countries, tend to prefer English. Foreign language teaching is a topic of interest mainly in English-speaking countries; elsewhere, the major concern is English language teaching.

The protection of endangered languages is a recent concern of many language policy scholars. They have noticed the rapid loss of smaller minority languages, estimating that most of the current 6,000 languages in the world will disappear in the next hundred years (Krauss 1991). The threat comes not just from world languages like Spanish (which has virtually denuded Latin America of its rich linguistic diversity) or French (with its strong monolingual ideology) or English (universally feared as the exemplar of linguistic imperialism) but also from stronger local languages like Swahili. Fishman (1990) provides a set of benchmarks for studying loss and suggests how to reverse it. So far, the most successful efforts at reversal have been associated with grants of political autonomy, as in Spain (Hoffmann 1995), the United Kingdom (Ó Laoire 1996; Coupland et al. 2006), and Canada (Bourhis 2001). There are also efforts in New Zealand (Spolsky 2005; May and Hill 2005), in South America (Hornberger and King 2001), and among other indigenous peoples (McCarty 2003; Omoniyi 2003).

Speakers of major languages also fear language loss. This can be seen in Spain, with the sensitivity of its Academy to language change; in France, with its growing number of regulations and language agencies; in Russia, with its refusal to recognize non-Cyrillic alphabets for minority languages and its claim of defending the language rights of Russian-speakers in former Soviet states; and even in the United States, where an English-only movement is struggling against what it sees as the threat of Spanish and other immigrant languages to the survival of what most people believe to be the strongest language in the world (Baron 1990).

Language policy is a new and rapidly developing field, the urgency and seriousness of which has resulted in activism by scholars who feel responsible for correcting what they see as injustices or blindness to the potential loss of linguistic diversity, as well as in academic attempts to develop theories to explain data from increasingly detailed descriptions of situations and policies.

Bernard Spolsky
© Cambridge University Press 2011

Related Credo Articles

Dictionary of Race, Ethnicity & Culture

(It. lingua ufficiale ; Fr. langue officielle ; Ger. offizielle Amtsspmche ) An ‘official’ language is a language adopted by all the...

Full text Article English as the Official Language
Culture Wars in America: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices

Since the 1980s, a movement referred to as “official English” by proponents—and “English-only” by critics—has actively pushed for codifying English

Full text Article National Language/Official Language
Concise Encyclopedia of Sociolinguistics

The term ‘national language’ refers to a language which serves the entire area of a nation rather than a regional or ethnic subdivision. As the...

See more from Credo