Nitobe Association

Nitobe is an association whose goal is to sensitise the political, commercial, and academic world, as well as the whole of civil society, about linguistic democracy and linguistic justice and, more generally, linguistic rights, a fundamental part of human rights. Nitobe is a non profit-making association.

The Nitobe Association is aware that every human being has at least one language that is generally known as his/her mother tongue.  Usually the mother tongue is given and not chosen, because it comes from the parents and/or the environment.   Thus it is an attribute of each person, like skin colour or sex.  By means of the language, a person organizes his/her thought processes, communicates, exchanges information, relates to others, and becomes socially active.  In this way, the ability to act through a wholly mastered language (usually precisely one’s mother tongue) is a precondition for an active life in society and the ability to become a true citizen, for example to be able to study, work and defend oneself in a tribunal.

Therefore, the protection of language is important not only from a cultural point of view.  It is also important practically, politically and economically : it means preservation of the concrete interests of individuals.  To allow language to lose its function in society in fact means loss of wealth – not only cultural but also material – to those who speak it as a mother tongue, because this effectively reduces their chances to participate in the various sectors of social, political and economic life using this language.

In places where linguistic discrimination occurs, to be born with a mother tongue which is not the dominant language in the society in effect puts people in a different position concerning access to knowledge, to justice and to the work market.  In these fields, to receive as the first language one rather than another inevitably influences one’s ability to be active in society, as well as opportunities for prosperity.  Defending linguistic rights thus is the other side of defence of human rights.

To guarantee the possibility of using one’s mother tongue in communication with institutions constitutes a necessary condition for an individual to be able to effectively enjoy his/her political rights.  In fact, the state apparatus is not able to not communicate.  The state can be neutral concerning religions, but it cannot be neutral concerning languages, because it is obliged to use at least one language for laws,  to operate tribunals, schools, for communications tools.  States that do not write or speak do not exist.  But institutions cannot be truly democratic if they are not based on inclusive communication, accessible to all citizens by means of their first language.  “Linguistic democracy” is thus a fundamental part of material democracy.

However, in some circumstances, it is not possible to use all languages, and some kind of limit to the languages used is necessary.  In this context, it is certainly desirable to learn other languages, whether foreign or the majority language.  But it must be demonstrated, and not assumed, that it is necessary to limit the use of the mother tongue.   Learning another language usually involves various costs, primarily economic but also psychological (induced by the lowered status of the other languages and lack of confidence in expressing oneself in the foreign language).  Thus, when in some context, a limitation to language use occurs (official or incidental), it is imperative to evaluate which compensations are necessary to assign to those excluded.

If in some contexts, for practical reasons, one agrees to limit use of languages, it is necessary to introduce the principal that, for the privilege of using one language over the others, with corresponding specific and precise compensations (for example, financial grants) to the benefit of the people speaking the excluded languages.  This is the principle of  “linguistic justice”.

Linguistic rights, linguistic democracy and linguistic justice are at the heart of  the Nitobe Association.  The name of the association has been selected to honour Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933), a learned Japanese diplomat, who in 1921 presented a famous report to the League of Nations, in which he openly raised the question of linguistic democracy and justice in international communications, stressing objectively and dispassionately the function and usefulness of the language Esperanto during the thirteenth Universal Esperanto Congress in Prague.