Peter Jan Honigsberg, a professor at the University of San Francisco, has recently published a paper called “Alone in a Sea of Voices: Recognizing a New Form of Isolation by Language Barriers”, which deals with the consequences of linguistic isolation and compares it with physical isolation and solitary confinement practices in prisons. The similarities between the two are striking and of great importance after the United Nations’ Human Rights Council labelled prisoner isolation as a form of torture.
Solitary confinement involves isolating a prisoner from any human contact for a specific amount of time, usually as a punishment within prisons, after the inmates have violated the regulations. UN reports from 2008 state that this practice can result in severe mental health issues such as insomnia or hallucinations. In his paper, Honigsberg argues that the anguish experienced by prisoners when they do not share the language spoken by the majority is comparable to the feeling of physical isolation and leads to a decline in the ability to make good decisions. The linguistic barrier becomes an impediment to participate in prison life in general.
The consequences of linguistic isolation vary depending on each individual. Some inmates naturally have a predisposition towards learning languages and remain affected by the isolation for shorter periods of time. For those who feel the consequences more strongly, there are barely any pieces of legislation which address the issue. The last of its kind was the Crime Control Act of 1990, which requires inmates to learn the English language until they achieve eighth-grade proficiency.