There are more than 60 indigenous, regional or minority languages officially recognised in the European Union. These are not dead languages either; together they are spoken regularly by roughly 40 million people. Yet just because minority languages are spoken today does not mean that they can survive without support.
Nearly all regional and minority languages are under pressure. The Saami language of northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and the Kola Peninsula in Russia, for example, has only a few hundred speakers left in some communities, and is in danger of dying out completely.
Nevertheless, Europe is nothing if not multilingual (54% of Europeans can hold a conversation in at least two languages), and most Europeans would recognise that greater linguistic diversity brings cultural richness to a country. But, as budgets are being tightened across the continent, would most people also agree that minority languages should continue to receive legal protection and financial support?
Curious to learn more about minority language rights and multilingualism across Europe? We’ve put together some facts and figures in an infographic below (click for a larger image).
We had a comment sent in by Peter, arguing that minority language rights should not be left up to ‘market forces’. He believed that governments should be compelled to actively support and protect minority, regional, and indigenous languages in Europe.
We put this question to Tanel Kerikmäe, Director of Tallinn Law School in Estonia (a country with a significant Russian-speaking minority). How would he respond to Peter?
There is actually a big legal discussion today about whether minority language rights are human rights. Are language rights protected by the international community or by the European Union against a state? And, to be honest, I think that legally speaking they are not.
Language rights are more an issue related to the political process. They don’t really limit the state’s behaviour. So, basically, what we have is a lot of soft law. That means recommendations, declarations, committees, etc.
Even if European states are part of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, then the only thing they have to do is to report to the Council of Europe annually, and this will be just discussed and then the Council of Europe will give recommendations and share best practices. So, there is no sanction system [for] the central instrument of protecting minority languages. Furthermore, it’s not even ratified by most European states, even if it is rather soft in nature. For example: France, Greece, Lithuania, Latvia, and I’m sorry to say Estonia, haven’t ratified it…
To get another reaction to Peter’s comment, we also spoke to Rafael Ribó, the Catalan Ombudsman. He very enthusiastically supported Peter’s point:
I would agree absolutely with Peter. We need laws. We need subsidies. But also we need a kind of cultural pedagogy, trying to make the big language users understand that minority languages are an enrichment of the whole panorama of a country…
In the past, we’ve had a lot of comments discussing the status of the Catalan language, and whether it is sufficiently protected by the Spanish government. What did the Catalan ombudsman, Rafael Ribó, have to say on this question? Are minority language rights in Catalonia sufficient?
I would say not at all. The Spanish constitution provides a framework that no government since Franco until today has respected in full. They have all employed very minimal policies, and they never really accomplished what the constitution says. That’s really my main criticism of the constitution today. We have autonoymous governments pushing for minority languages, but the main tool – that would be the Spanish government – is failing.
Should minority languages be given legal protection and subsidies? Or, as budgets tighten across Europe, should minority languages be left to survive (or die) on their own? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!