kiev, Kyiv, language policy

The ‘other goal’ in language and information policies

9 minutes to read
Sjaak Kroon

As of March 2, 2022, Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, just like The New York Times, BBC, AP and The Guardian, opted for using the Ukranian names of cities instead of following the Russian transcription that was used before. As a consequence, Kiev became Kyiv and Charkov became Charkiv. Apart from press media, de Volkskrant says, also the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs increasingly uses Kyiv in its official communication. The newspaper took its decision partly because it received quite some questions from readers, asking why the Russian names were still used in its coverage of the war in Ukraine. According to Pieter Klok, editor in chief of de Volkskrant, ‘every country that, after a period of repression opts for freedom and wishes to mark that by using the name of the country and its place-names in their own language,’ deserves our support.

Language policy for ‘some reason’

The Kyiv case makes clear that hardly ever, language policy is only or even mainly about language. That is the main lesson I tried to teach generations of students in courses on language policy and planning at Tilburg University, the Netherlands. In most cases, language policy is a means to reach another goal, be it political, societal, ideological, cultural or economic. Although this ‘other goal’ isn’t explicitly mentioned in Cooper’s (1989: 45) definition of language planning as “deliberate efforts to influence the behavior of others with respect to the acquisition, structure, or functional allocation of their language codes,” it is clearly visible in the title of his seminal book Language Planning and Social Change. Kaplan and Baldauf (1997: 3) do include this ‘other goal’ – but modestly – in their definition of language planning as “an attempt by someone to modify the linguistic behaviour of some community for some reason.” Of course, ‘for some reason’ can mean a lot of different things and it mainly depends on the policy makers, rather than on the linguists who are given the assignment to develop specific language policies, what these things might be. Even after so many years, I still consider Tollefson’s (1991) collection of case studies in Planning Language, Planning Inequality to be among the best illustrations of a historical-structural approach to language policy that, in contrast to neo-classical approaches, contributes to unravelling the often hidden and messy ambitions of policy makers.

‘Unity through diversity’ or ‘Divide and rule’

Trilingual sign on Harnet Street, Asmara, Eritrea

Let me give an example. It is taken from my work with Chefena Hailemariam (2002) and Yonas Mesfun Asfaha (2009) in Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. Already before Eritrea, after thirty years of armed struggle with Ethiopia, gained its independence in 1993, the provisional EPLF government had designed a policy document on how to deal with the country’s linguistic diversity in education. Eritrea has nine ethnolinguistic groups that speak nine different languages from three different language families, using three different scripts. The policy decided that all nine languages had to be considered equal and that all children in elementary school would get the opportunity to be taught in their own languages. This was nicely covered by the slogan ‘Unity through diversity’.

Hardly ever, language policy is only or even mainly about language

This all, at first sight, seems to be totally in line with the generally accepted idea that children will profit from being educated in their mother tongue as a first step in a successful school career. If we have a closer look however at the linguistic landscape of Eritrea, we see that about 50 percent of the population are Tigrinya speakers, who are followers of the Christian-Orthodox Church and play the main part in the country’s government. From the other half of the population, about 27 percent are speakers of Tigre, and all other ethnolinguistic groups, that is speakers of Afar, Bidhaawyeet, Bilen, Kunama, Nara, Arabic and Saho, have numbers between 1 and 6 percent of the population and they are all mainly followers of Islam. One could therefore also argue that the provisional government’s hidden goal of their language policy was ‘Divide and rule’, that is, by providing education in the mother tongue, ensuring that the 50 percent Muslim population would stay separated in small independent groups that would be no threat to the Tigrinya speaking Christian-Orthodox rulers. This is not to say that either of the two possibilities is the only truth, but it clearly shows that language policy is never only about language but always also has this ‘other goal’ as well. We only need to look in-depth to see it (see also Kroon, 2021).

Technological fixes vs ideologically grounded criteria

Fruits and vegetables?

The Eritrea example for many might look like an old school language policy case dealing with what Cooper (1989) termed ‘status planning’, that is the allocation of specific functions to a language. Let me therefore also add an example of language, or better language and information, policy 2.0. We live in an information age that is highly determined by globalization and digitalization processes. People are connected through the internet, social media, mobile phones and smart phones. These digital infrastructures’ main ambition is to inform people, provide them with information and news, through language, images and videoclips in a multimodal ensemble. The earning capacity of the companies that engage in social media distribution is based on the viral spread of their messages and the exploitable user data that are collected in this process. As a consequence, the potential of a message to go viral is often considered more important than its truth. The corona pandemic for example led to an explosion of fake news, junk news and conspiracy theories on social media, often blocking official information issued by governments and health institutions (Maly, 2020). The main question to be asked here relates to who should be in charge, who should take control to stop false information. Should we welcome and trust tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumbler, Instagram and Reddit to do this job themselves, even if they are commercially speaking clearly not independent, or should we rely on authoritative institutions like governments to do so? Tech companies might mainly apply yes-no technological fixes to exclude misinformation, pornography, adult content and sexist, racist or other non-inclusive language and images (Dumoulin, 2022; Morgandi, 2019).

Who exactly is it that makes policy decisions, for whom and to what end exactly?

Governments on the other hand might come up with ideologically grounded criteria for what is allowed on social media and what is not. In aiming at influencing their target groups’ online behavior, that is to protect them from unacceptable content and urge them to not post such content themselves, such technological fixes and ideological criteria in fact very closely resemble traditional language and information policies. Also here, however, the main question is about the policy makers’ ‘other goal’. Who exactly is it that makes such policy decisions, for whom and to what end exactly? Why should, to start with a harmless example, the peach and eggplant emojis be banned, why should people not be trusted to decide themselves what information they would like to get online, why is ‘fake news’ on the war in Ukraine and words like ‘invasion’ and ‘war’ suddenly banned from Russian media – with a penalty of up to 15 years imprisonment – and why is ‘military operation’ permitted? Each of these questions relates to more than just the content that is banned. They relate to the policy makers’ ‘other goal’. We only need to look in-depth to see it.

Chronotopicity and the top-down-bottom-up divide

The two examples dealt with show that it is clearly not enough anymore to simply look at language and information policies as they are designed at the drawing board. Such policies are defined within the framework of a more general national policy framework. They are developed and implemented in continuously changing contexts: approaches or solutions that may be effective at one point in time, may become less relevant or even obsolete later.

Policies are often only a poor indicator of practices

Apart from the fact that policies are connected to a specific chronotopic context (Blommaert, 2017) that potentially hampers their effectiveness in the long run, there is another potentially disturbing aspect. That is the top-down-bottom-up divide in policy making. Johnson (2013: 10) characterizes bottom-up solutions for language (and information) problems as micro-level, covert, implicit and de facto policies whereas he refers to top-down policies as macro-level, overt, explicit and de jure policies. Bottom-up practices and top-down policies often appear to be very different from each other, even if they try to tackle the same problem. As Spolsky (2004) already noted, a language (and information) policy can indeed take the shape of a policy document, a text with rules and regulations. At the same time, however, it can be reflected in people’s language (and information) practices and attitudes in real life that do not necessarily coincide with decisions in officially concluded policy documents.

Fore­grounding the agency of practitioners

The ideas and practices of those involved in solving language and information related problems on the ground are basically a reflection of bottom-up, grassroots perspectives that provide local solutions for local challenges, but at the same time can play a role as local bottom-up evidence for a certain approach in the traditional process of top-down policy development.  Policies are often only a poor indicator of practices. The domain of actual language and information practices can be considered the meeting place of formal policies and norms from above and informal practices and norms from below. In line with Ricento and Hornberger’s (1996: 419) plea for research that fore­grounds the agency of practitioners in deciding on language (and information) policies, I would more generally argue in favor of employing an ethnographic approach in offline (Blommaert & Dong, 2020; McCarty, 2011) as well as online (Varis, 2016; Lu, 2020) research on and for language and information policies in order to ensure that participants’ perspectives on the ground – offline, online and, to use Blommaert’s (2019) phrase, in the online-offline nexus – are explicitly taken on board.


Asfaha, Y. M. (2009). Literacy Acquisition in Multilingual Eritrea. A comparative study of reading across languages and scripts. PhD thesis Tilburg University. Amsterdam: Aksant Academic Publishers. 

Blommaert, J. (2019). From groups to actions and back in online-offline sociolinguistics. Multilingua, 38(4), 485-493.

Blommaert, J. (2017). Chronotopes, scales and complexity in the study of language. In K. Arnaut, M. S. Karrebæk, M. Spotti & J. Blommaert (Eds.), Engaging Superdiversity. Recombining Spaces, Times and Language Practices (pp. 47-62). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Blommaert, J. & Dong, J. (2020). Ethnographic Fieldwork. A beginners’ guide. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Cooper, R. L. (1989). Language Planning and Social Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dumoulin, I. (2022). Democracy and the ‘Shit You Should Care About’.

Hailemariam, C. (2002). Language and Education in Eritrea. A case study of language diversity, policy and practice. PhD thesis Tilburg University. Amsterdam: Aksant Academic Publishers. 

Johnson, D. C. (2013). Language Policy. New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Kaplan, R. B. & R. B. Baldauf (1997). Language Planning: From Practice to Theory. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Kroon, S. (2021). Language Policy in Public Space. A historical perspective on Asmara’s linguistic landscape.  Journal of Eastern African Studies.

Lu, Ying (2020). Biaoqing on Chinese Social Media. Practices, products, communities and markets in a knowledge economy. PhD thesis Tilburg University. 

Maly, I. (2020). The coronavirus, the attention economy and far-right junk news.  

Morgandi. F. (2019). Tumblr’s ban on pornographic content.   

McCarty, T. (Ed.) (2011). Ethnography and language Policy. London: Routledge.

Ricento, T. & N. Hornberger (1996). Unpeeling the onion: Language plan­ning and policy and the ELT professional. TESOL Quarterly 30(3), 401-427.

Spolsky, B. (2004). Language policy: Key topics in sociolinguistics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tollefson, J. W. (1991). Planning language, planning inequality. Language policy in the community. London and New York: Longman.

Varis, P. & Hou, M. (2020). Digital approaches in linguistic ethnography. In K. Tusting (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Linguistic Ethnography (pp. 229-240). London: Routledge.