Leiden Language Blog

The linguistics of advocating for children’s rights

The linguistics of advocating for children’s rights

Legal expressions reflect, as many of our words do, the rich diversity of cultural concepts found in the world’s languages. International legal texts, however, extend to many different jurisdictions, where a given text must be applicable in more than one language. The clear conceptualization of relevant terminology and proper translation are key tools in successfully advocating for international human rights. This blog post on ‘advocacy’ is the first part of a series of posts that aim to address relevant linguistic issues in this field.


In the field of international children’s rights, ‘advocacy’ is a term that is frequently used. But how do we advocate for such issues in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural world? And what does ‘advocacy’ mean? Firstly, we need to define what exactly is understood by the term ‘advocacy’ in a legal context. The noun ‘advocate’ originally referred to the legal position of pleading on someone’s behalf, or being the “one whose profession is to plead cases in a court of justice”. The word is historically rooted in the Roman legal system, which is already evident in the etymology. ‘Advocate’ stems from the Latin advocāre, consisting of the prefix ad- ‘to’ and the verb vocare ‘to call’ – in other words, to call upon someone to speak on one’s behalf in a court of law.

In its broader legal meaning, ‘advocacy’ refers to the act of representing someone in court or advising on legal matters, and besides this, it may also refer to various kinds of social actions undertaken on behalf of a person or a group of people. In this respect, the contemporary use of the term ‘advocacy’ in legal jargon has taken on a much wider scope of meaning. Even among legal practitioners, there is disagreement with regards to how it should be defined, and various academics, legal practitioners and international bodies apply it differently.

In the field of children’s rights, disparate notions of ‘advocacy’ are placed within a wider international legal context, where the above theoretical categories are often indistinguishable. In particular, this can be seen in context of the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the related standards, guidelines and recommendations. In an attempt to define the role of the advocate in children’s rights and how this role intersects with the child’s interests, Boylan & Darymple (2009) differentiate between three forms of advocacy: issue-based advocacy, relationship-based advocacy and general-issue advocacy. UNICEF defines ‘advocacy’ as “the deliberate process, based on demonstrated evidence, to directly and indirectly influence decision makers, stakeholders and relevant audiences to support and implement actions that contribute to the fulfilment of children’s and women’s rights” (our emphasis). Similarly, Save the Children has defined advocacy based on its own values: “the work we do to influence the policies and actions of governments, international institutions and the private sector, in order to achieve positive changes in children’s lives” (our emphasis). ‘Advocacy’ as used by this organization refers to research, policy analysis, lobbying, communications and public campaigning.

Beyond the problematic semantics, translation appears to be another difficulty when talking about advocacy, as many languages simply cannot express the same concept that evolved from the English language and Anglo-Saxon (legal) culture. Hungarian is a good example of this. The Hungarian expression that most closely resembles ‘to advocate’ is támogat ‘to support’. Támogat is derived from the noun tám (‘support, prop’) and -ogat, a frequentative suffix that typically denotes repetitive action, but may form a word that has its own, non-frequentative meaning. While in a metaphorical sense támogat approximates the meaning of the English term, it is not appropriate in a legal context. Take, for example, the following sentence:

A          civil      szervezetek          támogat-ják      a             gyermek-jogok-at
ART      civil     organization.PL    support-3PL    ART          child-right.PL-ACC
‘NGOs advocate for children’s rights’
This sentence is semantically odd, as it essentially states that NGOs support the idea of children’s rights, yet there is no connotation of action. As a result, Hungarian lawyers tend to refer to the concept using the English term ‘advocacy’ in informal contexts, but this solution is still insufficient, because it can only be used in the company of those with a specific legal background and competency. The problem also remains that the lack of a proper translation means there is no way to refer back to legal documents. Furthermore, this presents an even more pressing question, which is how to translate across different conceptual systems. Much of this ‘legalese’ stems from Latin, English, French, German and Spanish, and therefore the legal terms are specific to the historical constructs of these legal systems. As Foley (1997: 171) points out: “Because translation requires moving the categories of the alien system into those of our own, this imposes constraints on how radically different the alien system can be … we are not trying to match the meanings of words across the systems, but the conceptual schemes these belong to – a much taller order, as this implies aligning the systems as wholes”.

So how should we define ‘advocacy’? And how does this tie into who and what we are advocating for? Stay tuned for our next post on understanding ‘the best interest of the child’. 

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