How Is Linguistic Isolation Similar to—and Different From—Physical Isolation?

There are similarities and differences between physical isolation and linguistic isolation. When people think of isolation in prison, they typically think of physical isolation, commonly known as solitary confinement. Although there is no exact definition for solitary confinement, it usually involves isolating prisoners in closed cells for 22 to 24 hours a day. Human contact is very limited, and contact is only with prison personnel.

In linguistic isolation—which is also known as isolation by language barriers—prisoners are not physically isolated from the general prison population. However, because they do not speak the language spoken by prisoners in the neighboring cells, they are linguistically isolated.

An inmate who is unable to communicate through language cannot hold meaningful conversations with others. The absence of meaningful human contact is the essence of any form of isolation, whether physical or linguistic. Someone who is linguistically isolated may not be environmentally or physically isolated from others, but is socially isolated. Imagine a stroke victim who watches the community of conversations around him, but cannot participate.

Our Witness to Guantanamo project interviewed a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who had come from Uzbekistan and spoke only Uzbek for most of the time he was imprisoned. The men in the neighboring cells, however, did not speak Uzbek but spoke the languages most commonly heard in Guantanamo: Arabic and English. The Uzbek suffered linguistic isolation. For a substantial portion of his eight years of incarceration, he was unable to communicate meaningfully with others. He told our project how he awoke each morning and cried.

People who suffer physical isolation may experience insomnia, confusion, hallucinations, and psychosis. Because linguistic isolation is a new field of scholarship, I could not find any studies confirming the effects of language isolation. However, since all forms of isolation result in the absence of meaningful human contact, it seems that people who suffer language isolation may experience effects similar to those who suffer physical isolation. Research needs to be undertaken to investigate the effects of linguistic isolation as compared with physical isolation.

Peter Jan Honigsberg is a professor of law at the University of San Francisco and the director of the Witness to Guantanamo project.

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