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Organizers and partner institutions:

Bard Translation and Translatability Initiative

Bard College Human Rights Project

Brandeis University's International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life

British Institute of International and Comparative Law

Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement and Education

Law and Linguistics Interdisciplinary Researchers Network

People for Change Foundation

Universidad de Salamanca, GIR Traducción, Ideología y Cultura

University of Birmingham, College of Arts and Law, Law and Language Group 

University of York Migration Network




Upcoming Events



Exploring Language for and about Migrants in Australia, Europe and North America

17-18 November 2020

Read the final program.

The Language, Culture and Justice Hub, hosted by Brandeis University, is organizing an online “learning exchange” that will explore diverse language challenges facing migrants as they navigate legal and other critical contexts, work in academic/professional settings, and respond to rhetoric that (mis)(re)presents them across three continents. We will use the Platform4Dialogue interface developed by the UK-based organization Peace Direct, which encourages, enables and supports inclusive online dialogue for practitioners and professionals on a range of issues.

The exchange will be written and asynchronous, using several topical discussion threads and occuring over two days in order to accommodate participants across multiple time zones. Contributions can be made and read in English, Spanish, French and Arabic with the help of computer-generated translation.

Participation is simple: over the course of 17 and 18 November (starting 16 November in North America), attendees will log on at their convenience to the learning exchange platform to review comments and contribute their own thoughts to the developing group conversation. A minimum of two hours of participation is expected, and there are no registration fees.

See more details of how it will work below.

migrants in mediterraneanThis online event seeks to explore and compare diverse language-related facets of the migration experience in Australia, Europe and North America. These facets can be grouped along three axes:

1) the rights enacted through laws or directives ensuring procedural fairness for migrants, including their ability to access critical information in their languages through translated documents or interpretation;

2) the everyday rules, written and unwritten, of language provision and practice in situations involving migrants, which may fall short of formally guaranteed rights and reflect various "language ideologies," that is, common if sometimes misguided understandings of how language works; and

3) the problematic or demonizing rhetoric about migrants and their communities of origin, and the obstacles such rhetoric may create for people on the move.

The exchange will also examine the impact of the current pandemic both on the availability and adequacy of language services, which have shifted largely to remote technologies, and on public narratives about migrants from regions that have been described, often inaccurately, as sources of the coronavirus.

Rights, Rules and Rhetoric seeks participation by a broad range of actors: migrants, international students, asylum seekers/refugees, scholars, researchers, activists, and practitioners and policymakers from diverse fields. 

The desired outcomes for the proposed learning exchange are varied and yet interconnected: 1) to compare linguistic aspects of the migration experience in three distinct geographical zones with varied migrant populations; 2) to identify clearly the language challenges faced by migrants and discern any best practices around addressing them; 3) to articulate future paths in research, policymaking and activism in the area of language and migration; and 4) to build networks across spheres of engagement.

This last outcome is of particular importance. The learning exchange will constitute a rare opportunity to bring into conversation individuals who would not necessarily interact in other forums – due to distance, regional differences, or simply because they do not attend the same conferences or even read the same resources. We hope that the interaction between participants who focus on rights and fair procedures for migrants, who work with and assist migrants in diverse settings, and who explore the impacts of politicized and harmful rhetoric on immigration policy and attitudes, will prove particularly fruitful. The exchange represents a forum where notions of exclusion and “othering” can be examined from both practical and theoretical standpoints.

migrants at us borderIt is clear that issues of rights, rules and rhetoric are often intertwined with processes of migration. To take one example, members of Indigenous groups in Central America may decide to flee their homes due to recent upticks in violence which follow decades of social and economic marginalization by the state, largely associated with their linguistic and cultural differences. Upon arrival at the US-Mexico border, their need – some would argue their explicit right – to receive information in their principal language is often misunderstood or wilfully neglected, leading to prolonged detention, problematic access to immigration proceedings, and/or eventual deportation. At the same time, these migrants may be subject to public commentary, or even formal government pronouncements, about their “undesirability” as US residents or alleged status as disease carriers. Denial of fair procedure, unjust or inadequate rules of everyday practice, and harmful narratives thus compound one another, further intensifying inequities and humanitarian challenges.

The participation of individuals who have themselves undergone a migration journey is also a critical component of the learning exchange. Some participants may, of course, represent several areas of experience, e.g. a migrant who has become an interpreter or legal practitioner working with, or advocating for, persons who are detained at a border or newly arrived in a host country.

Here is how the online event will work:

  • Participants will engage in secure, constructive, and focused conversations using the Platform4Dialogue interface. They will just need access to a computer with internet connection or a mobile phone or tablet to participate.
  • The conversation will be structured along several concurrent discussion boards on each of two days. Participants can contribute to all discussion boards, adding their comments, ideas and responses. 
  • The working language of the exchange will be English. Contributions can also be offered and read in Spanish, French, and Arabic with the help of computer-generated translation.
  • Participants will be able to log on at any time during the 24-hour period of a day (from any region and time zone). We ask that registrants log in at least two times per day during each of the two 24-hour periods (17 & 18 November, with North American time zones starting on 16 November) in order to keep the conversation active. Time commitment can be determined by participants' schedules and availability.
  • Facilitators from relevant fields will help guide the online dialogue, posing questions throughout each day. They will also play the important role of synthesizing comments and bridging differences between professional discourse styles so that all participants can be heard and understood.
  • No advance preparation is required, though we do ask participants to review the resources and questions provided as prompts and to draw on their own expertise and experiences in contributing to the conversations.
  • Participants will also have access to a wide list of resources around language and migration, housed on the Language, Culture and Justice Hub.
  • After the 2-day event concludes, the platform will remain open for a number of weeks in order for participants to re-read comments and offer feedback and recommendations. 

The learning exchange is organized by Leigh Swigart and Hillary Mellinger of Brandeis University’s Language, Culture and Justice Hub (USA); Alexandra Grey and Laura Smith-Khan of the Law and Linguistics Interdisciplinary Researchers Network (based in Australia); and Jean-Pierre Gauci of the People for Change Foundation (Malta) and British Institute of International and Comparative Law (UK). Partner institutions currently include GIR Traducción, Ideología y Cultura, a research group at the Universidad de Salamanca (Spain); the Law and Language Group at the University of Birmingham, College of Arts and Law (UK); the University of York Migration Network (UK); the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement and Education (USA); and the Bard Translation and Translatability Initiative and Bard Human Rights Project (USA).

The Rights, Rules and Rhetoric learning exchange seeks to shed light on issues that exacerbate the marginalization of vulnerable groups and contribute to the polarization of citizens and newcomers in diverse contexts. The results of our exchange, including any recommendations that emerge from the event, will be disseminated via our partner institutions and participants to broader policymaker, practitioner, research and migrant communities. Our hope is that improved communicative justice and respect of language rights will lead to enhanced understanding and harmony across populations in migrant-destination countries.

For questions or more information, please contact learning exchange coordinator Hillary Mellinger:

Photo credits: UN News Service and Getty Images