‘As an Indigenous and ethnic minority woman, I dream, I laugh, I experience my true self in my own language. I need to be able to express myself in my own language in multilingual spaces,’ explained a Karen activist from Myanmar who attended a recent convening hosted by the South and Southeast Asia (SSEA) team of Foundation for a Just Society (FJS). This activist’s words powerfully reminded us how important it is for funders to practice language justice.
In early 2022, FJS’s SSEA team launched a project to learn more about language justice. As a feminist funder, FJS supports organizations that are led by the women, girls, and LGBTQI people most affected by injustice. Our commitment to centering the leadership and priorities of caste-oppressed and Indigenous feminist activists in South and Southeast Asia led us to realize that language justice is a key practice that we needed to integrate into our work. We knew that there was a lot at stake and much to learn, so we got started.
What is language justice?
Language justice is an approach in social justice movements that aims to share power and practice inclusion. It breaks with practices that have traditionally disenfranchised non-English speakers. A language justice approach means creating spaces in which people can communicate authentically and genuinely; it facilitates their participation in spaces where other participants do not understand their mother-tongue or acquired language.
Language justice is distinct from language access. Language justice ensures that meetings are designed to shift power dynamics and to level the playing field. This allows speakers of dominant and non-dominant languages to participate equitably. Language justice also includes making inclusive accommodations for people with disabilities, such as providing sign language interpretation and/or captioning in local languages.
Language justice also ensures that written materials are available in all languages before the meeting and that skilled language justice workers are on hand to provide high quality interpretation on behalf of those who are being interpreted, often activists and human rights defenders from historically marginalized communities.
If we don’t intentionally work to shake up linguistic power dynamics, speakers of non-dominant languages will inevitably be reminded that their language is the non-dominant one and not equally valued. As a result, they can feel isolated, alienated, and not authentically themselves. The power dynamics go unchallenged.
Disrupting these dynamics and honoring people’s languages honors their rights to self-expression and self-determination. Respecting these rights means making space for people to speak the language in which they feel powerful and most authentically themselves.
FJS’s work in the South and Southeast Asia region
Our South and Southeast Asia (SSEA) region was selected as a deliberate choice for our language justice initiative. This is a language-diverse region, marked by a history of colonialism, the legacy and presence of which continues to be felt today. English is still spoken, and, in many countries, it remains an official language. However, resistance to English domination is strong. Millions of people speak local languages in their daily lives.
FJS recognizes that our potential grantee partners in the region speak hundreds of languages. The impact of implementing language justice approaches in the region helps us to support feminist and gender justice movements in more just and inclusive ways.
Our SSEA team works principally in Thailand, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. In these contexts, we realized we could not responsibly fund the activism of women, girls and LGBTQI people most affected by injustice if we communicated only in English. Caste, ethnic, and economic elites have a better command and fluency in English due to the structural and historical power they have held. Therefore, English-only spaces exclude people who do not belong to these elite groups. Indeed, even communicating in the dominant national languages of these four countries – Thai, Nepali, Bangla, and Burmese, respectively – excludes many people who speak other local non-dominant or ethnic minority languages more comfortably and confidently.
Why language justice matters and what it will take
FJS considers language justice to be a political commitment. As we noted earlier, the ability to communicate in English in South and Southeast Asia is a marker of class, caste, and ethnicity. Expecting partners to engage with us only in English reinforces caste-based, race-based, and ethnicity-based power hierarchies. English-only grantmaking is not responsive to feminist and other social movements.
In our work with partners, we see that interpretation facilitates and increases access and participation. When we meet with partners only in English, it’s likely that only the director or management team members of an organization will be able to join in. However, providing local language interpretation fosters broader, including grassroots, participation. We hear a greater diversity of voices and perspectives, and we understand much more about our partners’ work. It makes us a better, more responsive funder.
To follow the leadership of the activists that we support, we need to respect and facilitate their right to express themselves in their chosen language. This means planning for translation and interpretation when we are developing our grantmaking processes and documents, creating written materials, and planning meetings and conferences. Obviously, this work has cost implications that we need to take into account. Budgeting for language justice needs to become an integrated part of our work planning, and not an after-thought.
Prachi Patankar is a feminist activist, writer, and the Senior Program Officer, South and Southeast Asia at Foundation for a Just Society.
Phoebe De Padua is a Filipina community organizer and the Senior Program Associate, South and Southeast Asia at Foundation for a Just Society.