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Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght

Let’s Brusselize the world!

Helder De Schutter


In verschillende artikels, vooral in ’Moet Europa Belgisch zijn?’, heeft Ph. Van Parijs geargumenteerd dat de Europese en globale taalpolitiek op een ’Belgische’ wijze moeten worden georganiseerd. Deze Belgische oplossing bestaat erin dat territoria officieel eentalig zijn, zoals dat ook grotendeels het geval is in de Belgische gewesten Vlaanderen en Wallonie. Maar Belgie heeft een derde gewest, Brussel, met een officieel tweetalig taalbeleid. Philippe argumenteert voor de universalisering van het Vlaanderen/Wallonie-model. Ik argumenteer voor de tegenovergestelde positie: de universalisering van het Brusselse model.

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1In the past decade, Philippe Van Parijs has developed a brilliant theory of linguistic justice, recently published as Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World (Van Parijs 2011). I admire Philippe’s project, but I disagree with one pillar of it. Philippe defends ’linguistic territoriality’, arguing that native language groups should, if they desire so, be able to ’grab a territory’ on which their language will be the only official language of that territory (Van Parijs 2009). That language then becomes the only admissible one within that territory as regards public administration, political life, judiciary procedures and public education. Philippe portrays this territoriality view as central to the ideal of linguistic justice for our current world. I disagree. I think we need to globally advertise the very opposite: linguistic pluralism, to be explained below.

Two Models of Linguistic Justice

  • 1 It also has a third official language, German, spoken by only 70.000 Belgians. Language recognition (...)

2To make this discussion palpable, let me sketch a stylized picture of the language issue in Belgium, the linguistically diverse state of which Philippe and I are citizens. Belgium has two major official languages: Dutch and French.1 These two language groups get equal status, but this equality is expressed in two different ways, depending on where you are located within Belgium. Ill call the first way the Brussels model, and the second the ROB (Rest of Belgium) model. The capital region, Brussels, with about 10% of the Belgian population, is officially bilingual. Inhabitants have freedom of choice between French and Dutch with regard to public institutions and services, such as the school for their children (there are schools in each language), their voting ballot, the city council (officials will approach them in the language of their choice), public hospitals, or state museums. Individuals are not required to make a language package choice; they choose on a case-by-case basis: they can send their children to a Dutchmedium school, attend subsidized theatre in French today and in Dutch next week, vote for Dutch speaking politicians, and go to a French speaking doctor. On Brussels territory, then, both language groups get full linguistic recognition: Brussels has an officially bilingual status.

3This is the first model of linguistic justice, the Brussels model. Put theoretically, the Brussels model stipulates that linguistic justice entails equal recognition. Within certain practical limits, all native language groups within a region should receive equal status, so that individuals with the respective identities get language recognition. When I argue for linguistic pluralism as the hallmark for linguistic justice in the world today, this is the model I have in mind, hence the title of this contribution: if we want to realize global linguistic justice, we should globally advertize a version of the Brussels model.

  • 2 In its literal meaning, ‘territoriality as a way of naming the ROB model (common in public discour (...)

4The second model is the ROB model. The ROB model embraces linguistic territoriality: each territory only has one official language. In Belgium, the ROB model applies to the rest of the Belgian territory, essentially to Flanders (minus Brussels and some exceptions) and Wallonia (minus the Germanspeaking municipalities and some exceptions). Both Flanders and Wallonia have only one official language: in Flanders the official language is Dutch; in Wallonia it is French. In both regions, then, it is only in the language of the region that one can find schools, get city council services or find state museums. To be sure, Belgium internally has open borders: French speakers are welcome to move to Flanders and Dutch speakers can opt to live and/or work in Wallonia. But they will have to adapt linguistically as far as public language use is concerned. In theoretical terms, the ROB model stipulates that linguistic justice requires assigning to language groups territories on which their language will be the only official language. The people can of course be very multilingual, but the territory reserves official status to only one language.2

5So Belgium has adopted two models of linguistic justice: the Brussels model which grants rights to more than one native language group living on the territory, and the ROB model which works on the premise that each territory should be officially monolingual, applying a cujus regio ejus lingua principle. Philippe argues for the universalization of the ROB model: when he talks about ’Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World’ (2011) and when he says that ’Europe should be Belgian’ (2001), the linguistic justice and the type of Belgium he has in mind is of the ROB type. I argue for the opposite position: the universalization of the Brussels model.

The problem with the ROB model

6The most important argument for thinking the Brussels model to be superior to the ROB model is that the world today is not characterized by linguistically unified territories, and that, consequently, installing the ROB model is often inconsistent with granting equal recognition to linguistic minorities. In linguistically very homogeneous societies or territories – say, Iceland – few will see problems with implementing a ROB model. In such cases there is no need to recognize other languages since there are none, and a ROB way of proceeding is a natural practice. But the ROB regime is not advocated for such – from the point of view of linguistic justice ’trivial’ and unproblematic – cases. The ROB model acquires its normative force from situations where there is more than one historic language group. Yet, the same constellations where the ROB solution is relevant and for which it is intended, will almost invariably be constellations where it is heavily contested due to the presence on the same territory of speakers of another language. Indeed the ROB model is typically argued for with cases like Quebec, Catalonia, the Basque Country, and large parts of the Baltic States in mind. But these are all cases where two or more language groups live intermingled, where there is no congruence between language and territory in the first place. In such cases, including also examples like Brussels, Kosovo, Wales, much of Ukraine, the Balkans and Moldavia, different language groups live intermingled on the same territory.

7If in such cases only one of the languages is given all the official recognition, what about the language rights of those who speak another (non-immigrant) language? It is true that, as a result of centuries of nationbuilding, parts of the world have been transformed from linguistically very heterogeneous areas to more homogeneous ones. As a result, we can find today large monolingual zones in Europe and America. For such Icelandlike situations the ROB principle may be appropriate (be it trivial). But it certainly is not for the vast remaining instances of linguistic heterogeneity within the Western world and the much vaster linguistic heterogeneity existing in Africa, Latin America or South East Asia. For such situations, the Brussels model is a much better fit. Any attempt to ’grab a territory’ in places where language groups live so intermingled that neighbours living in the apartment above or adjacent to one another may belong to different language groups, will lead to the incorporation of linguistic minorities within the territory officially declared to belong to the language group that managed to grab it. These minorities can then be asked to assimilate (but how can this respect their dignity?), move to the other side, or in the best scenario (but already with important concessions to a pure territoriality model) get some language rights until they die out as Philippe suggests (2011: chapter 4). However, none of these solutions is one which chimes well with equal rights for all. If some native language groups are given language rights, then all should get it. What the ROB enthusiast ignores is intraterritorial linguistic heterogeneity, as a result of which the model cannot achieve linguistic justice.

8Interestingly, the same cases where we find two or more language groups sharing the same territory are also cases where you will find individuals with bilingual language identities, who do not uniquely identify with one of their linguistic belongings. For such bilinguals, the linguistic inappropriateness of the ROB model is much less severe than it is for linguistic minorities who will have ended up on the wrong side of the border once the ROB solution is implemented. After all, their linguistic identity interests are at least partly recognized. But they are forced to adhere to one part of their mixed identity structure, and this is regrettable given the existence of an alternative which avoids that problem.

9Propagating the ROB model as the hallmark of linguistic justice will also raise the expectations of language groups, and make just coexistence projects less feasible. Embracing the ROB model as the ideal in cases where two language groups claim the same land, makes it hard to think about and realize linguistic justice for all. The ’Grab a Territory’ view will at best result in territories for some, but not for others.

10So globally advertising the ROB model as the ideal of linguistic justice is the wrong thing to do: in linguistically diverse regions, it gives full language rights to some, but not to minorities, who are denied linguistic justice. It is unable to provide full linguistic justice for bilinguals. And it makes language groups believe that driving out or ignoring other groups is entailed by linguistic justice. If we are to choose, it is the opposite ideal that we should go for. The primary model for linguistic justice is to be the Brussels model. The basic guideline should be ’look at the existing linguistic diversity’. If linguistic diversity is such that one territory is inhabited by more than one native language group, then go for the equal recognition ideal central to the Brussels model. Only if no significant diversity can be found is an ROB model acceptable. The Brussels model is the standard rule, and deviating from it is only acceptable in cases which already instantiate an Icelandparadigm. There is no reason to protect more than one language group within Iceland, since there are none. Note that even in such cases, no injustice would be committed by implementing a Brussels model instead. If French speakers from Wallonia choose to move to Flanders in an imagined Belgium where the Brussels model is universalized within Belgium (and no ROB model exists), no injustice would be committed: both language groups would get language rights.

11On this Brussels model, multilingual language policies are installed, which grant equal recognition to the existing linguistic identities of citizens through equal language rights, such as the provision of police services, schools, voting ballots and welfare services in both languages. Language rights are then granted pluralistically, by granting equal sets of language rights to all. On this territory, members of each language group are enabled to experience their language identity and make use of the available resources to change it if wanted: this includes assimilating to another language, assuming or acquiring a bilingual language identity, or staunchly assuming a monolingual identity (even though incentives for knowing the language of the other language group(s) are to be given and encouraged, in the interest of stimulating a shared community). Each of the native language groups should enjoy equal language rights, and the territory’s institutions become effectively bilingual. Surely there are practical limits here: it’s hard to imagine pentalingual or hexalingual territorial communities. But even in such situations special accommodations can be imagined: while one or two shared languages will need to be fostered as shared languages of communication and democracy, special provisions for the minorities can be imagined.

Should we protect languages from erosion?

  • 3 There is also the important problem of fleshing out the various levels of efficiency associated wit (...)

12One important problem needs to be discussed at this stage.3 It has to do with what Philippe calls kindness-driven agony, which he bases on the insights of the Canadian sociolinguist Jean Laponce. Laponce states that in cases of peaceful contact between languages the more powerful language tends to dominate and assimilate the other(s) (2001: 188-189). Philippe has aptly summarized this Laponce mechanism as: The nicer people are with one another, the nastier languages are with each other (2000: 219). This law helps to explain the radical transformation of Brussels from a predominantly Dutch speaking city at the end of the 19th century to a predominantly French speaking city today. The rationale behind the ROB model, then, is that it will seriously constrain the spontaneous process of language contact and language shift, and thereby protect the territorially privileged language: the language status of the territory is fixed, and the official institutions massively encourage and coerce people into speaking the language of the territory, even if a more powerful language would without such massive encouragement of the territorial language tend to encroach upon it. As Philippe puts it: To protect vulnerable languages, there is, under circumstances of high mobility, at best one effective strategy, the firm application of the linguistic territoriality principle: Cuius regio, eius lingua (2000: 219).

13This argument calls for a reaction from defenders of the Brussels model. Is it not a problem that equal intra-territorial status for languages may lead to the effective domination of one language over the other? Not necessarily. It is important to see that the Brussels model is not a ’laissez-faire’ solution. Equally recognizing two languages, say Catalan and Spanish in Catalonia, French and Dutch in Brussels, or Russian and Ukrainian in Ukraine, confers active protection on those language groups, which will help guard them against massive linguistic assimilation pressure. Given the fact that the two languages in such cases receive active state support and symbolic benefits, equal language protection will help forging future people’s (and people’s future) language identities, which are more likely to be beneficial to the protected language groups than to others outside of the territory. But this model does not just provide protection for the official languages of the territory vis-a-vis other languages outside the territory. The Brussels model also protects the languages internally vis-a-vis each other. Whatever the lure of French may be, Dutch is actively protected: hospital, city council and police services will continue to benefit the Dutch minority in Brussels.

  • 4 Philippe is not basing his case for the ROB model on the idea that we should prevent local language (...)

14Of course evolutions are possible here, and the group of French speakers may grow while the number of Dutch speakers may decline. But even if that happens, the Brussels defenders should bite the bullet. Even if, under such an equal status language policy, the mechanism of free language contacts started to work toward the gradual erosion of one language group and the growing strength of another, then some members may regret this, but no injustice is committed. For, the switches made by those who leave the weaker group and join the stronger one are choices made against the background of government-supported linguistic liberty and equality. On the contrary, trying to preclude the emergence of bilingualism or language switches to the stronger language may be understood to be an injustice in itself. There is nothing wrong with people assimilating to other languages since, as soon as speakers of one language start losing their original language, the language recognition argument starts to work to the benefit of politically recognizing the stronger language. There is no reason to protect the weaker language from gradually eroding, except when there is a threat to the viability of the weaker language, for which then some priority in funding or recognition could be established. That priority, however, is justified uniquely by reference to the interests of the remaining speakers of the weaker language, not to those who left already or to the interests of language in itself. Once the background requirements of linguistic justice are appropriately fulfilled (according to the Brussels model) and generous language rights are granted, including in some cases a priority for a weaker group, there is no injustice involved in language loss.4

15Once linguistic justice is realized (so provided the remaining minority members still get many language provisions) one might regret the loss of a language in the same way that one might regret that Albert Camus did not live longer (or that he hadn’t worked harder) so that he might have written more novels. There is a loss involved in the fact that a language disappears, but that loss is not unjust.



LAPONCE, J. (2001), ’Politics and the Law of Babel’, Social Science Information, 40 (2): 179-194.

VAN PARIJS, P. (2000), ’The Ground Floor of the World. On the Socio-Economic Consequences of Linguistic Globalisation’, International Political Science Review, 21 (2): 217-233.

VAN PARIJS, P. (2001), ’Must Europe Be Belgian? On Democratic Citizenship in Multilingual Polities’, in C. McKinnon & I. Hamper-Monk (eds.), The Demands of Citizenship, London & New York: Continuum, 235-253.

VAN PARIJS, P. (2009), ’Grab a Territory! How equal linguistic dignity can be reconciled with English dominance in the European Union’, in J. Poirier, J. E. Fossum & P. Magnette (eds.), Ties that Bind: Accommodating Diversity in Canada and the European Union, Bern-Berlin-Brussels: Peter Lang, 155-172.

VAN PARIJS, P. (2011), Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1 It also has a third official language, German, spoken by only 70.000 Belgians. Language recognition also extends to the German-speakers, who are sometimes called the ‘best protected language minority in the world.

2 In its literal meaning, ‘territoriality as a way of naming the ROB model (common in public discourse in Belgium and Canada) is a misnomer, since of course Brussels is also a territorial unit, just one on which two languages get official recognition. Brussels is not less ‘territorial than the ROB.

3 There is also the important problem of fleshing out the various levels of efficiency associated with both models.

4 Philippe is not basing his case for the ROB model on the idea that we should prevent local language death – how could he since in his model those who end up on the wrong side of the border will not see their language protected from disappearance, even if they get temporary language ‘facilities, as he argues they can get but not after currently living speakers have left or died (future children would not get facilities). Philippe could therefore not see local language death as an argument against my view, as he accepts it as well for minorities. He also does not base his ROB model on the importance of preventing general language death. Instead he argues that once language groups become aware of the Laponce mechanism, they will see the grabbing of the territory as essential to dignity. My reply to this claim is that, even if it is true, given the pervasive global phenomenon of territorial linguistic heterogeneity, the costs to dignity for intra-territorial minorities are too high for this argument to be able to satisfy equality. Allowing groups to grab a territory in multilingual cases will lead to withholding minority members dignity for the sake of satisfying the dignity of members of larger groups. I thank Axel Gosseries for helpful suggestions on this point.


Helder De Schutter is an Assistant Professor in Social and Political Philosophy at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KUL, Belgium). He has research interests in contemporary political philosophy, in eighteenth-century French and German political thought, and in continental theories of language. His recent work focuses on normative justifications of nationalism, language policy and federalism. Recent publications have appeared in Politics, Philosophy & Economics; J. of Political Philos.; Inquiry; J. of Applied Philos. and Metaphilosophy.

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011

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