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?

TanelThere 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:

riboI 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?

riboI 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!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Jonathen Cohen

112 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Ciprian Anghel

    Yes it should, for example Catalan language is very interesting and it should be protected.

  2. avatar
    Rafael Cejas Acuña

    Yes, asolutely, but recognizing at the same time the preeminence of the most common ones in political and local institutions

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      ‘Gerhard Soyka
      …divided by confusion.

  3. avatar
    Łëø Ŕąffåĕlę

    In Europe we should speak only one language, and the majority language across Europe is German …

    European countries have beautiful languages like Italian , Portuguese, Swedish , Polish , but We need a complete union !

    We should study English and Russian as languages at school , and every European should speak German in the society … in the family you can speak in every way you wanna speak !

    • avatar
      Michael Hales

      No, the majority language is English, maybe not as mother tongue but as lingua franca in virtually every European country.

    • avatar
      Limbidis Adrian

      More English not German lol

    • avatar

      Look! You are asking people to speak German using English: how oxymoronic, Łëø!

    • avatar
      Emily Simpson

      I know I’m writing in English but I’ve seen sooo many English signs eg. in Eastern Europe like in shops but sometimes found nobody there speaks English- but usually they do speak German and I’m not just talking old people. Annoying for monoglot Anglos. I’m glad I speak German. Some countries don’t count minority speakers if they’re bilingual with the National language, so also as a first language German’s way underrepresented, and in Rumania Hungarian even more so. The serious studies show German’s the most useful language for Brits.

  4. avatar
    Ivan Burrows


    All you have to do is look at history, when one language becomes dominate all others die, lose your language = lose your culture & identity.

    It is the goal of the EU fanatics to assimilate the 27 countries of Europe into one so why waste time & money on them ?

    You will be ‘European’ & your language will be English…. whether you like it or not.

    • avatar
      Limbidis Adrian

      *cough* Belgium has two state languages.

  5. avatar
    Димитър Димитров

    Better money to spend on the creation and imposition of a single official language and alphabet with more characters that reflect the phoneticl richness of the continent…In other words, the grammar and phonetic experience of nations must be summarized.The new language must be have simple and natural grammar and the phonetics must be consensual, easy for the majority of nationsWords must be chosen by competition and voted. Which is the most beautiful European word for love? And which is closest to all nations as a root? Which word we to choose for pronoun in the first person singular?

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      @Димитър Димитров
      Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      @Elena Henriques
      Languages change!
      Cultures change!
      Populations change!


  6. avatar
    Makeze Roberts

    Culture and Language are both things that are subject to constant change. Your culture today is different from your parents or grandparents, as is the language. “Protecting” something as dynamic as culture or language and trying to make it static is a futile and absolutely useless undertaking. Its not going to work, no matter how much money and rescources you throw at it.

  7. avatar
    Ingo Vonsundahl

    Saving languages is one thing, spending tax payers’ money on all that European translating is another. Any international business meeting or academic congress is held in English which is, like it or not, today’s world languague. I find it astounding that our European politicians are send to the EU parliament in need of translating services. I cannot believe that you can seriously run for the EU parliament without speaking the world’s most international language. Meanwhile, anyone who is looking for work these days – even if it is let’s say cleaning at the airport – is asked to speak at least one more language apart from English.

  8. avatar
    Nigel Daff

    I hate to say it – but -I agree that culture – identity of countries MUST stay within individual countries however not necessarily for languages. We should all have a reasonable capability of at least english and- or french after leaving school in europe certainly.

  9. avatar
    Suzie Szabo Newbury

    No! Money should be spent where it’s needed not wanted! Cultures aren’t being protected they’re being eroded!

  10. avatar
    Björn Eric Ingemar Grahn

    To some extent should we provide support to have it survive but we also need especially to record it for the future. So even when or if it’s forgotten we still have the ability to get it back correct.

  11. avatar
    Tony Kunnari

    People hold dear and value those subjects and objects they wish to keep close to their hearts. We don’t need to give a privilege on any language because it turns into aberrantly discriminative behaviour rather quickly no matter how thoughtful the idea was in the beginning. It may seem that seldomly the good thoughts become aberrantly bad in practise. However this does not happen due inherently bad thoughts, but because thoughts channeled through our personal and communal experience of the ‘darkside’ alone results in other than the level of optimal good of the thought. See light in everything and everything in a new light, and the results turn into optimal sooner or later through practise. In other words see everything as they are and what everything can become. Leave out greed, envy and rivalry to do good.

  12. avatar
    Per Johansson

    Some argue that Swedish language here in Finland would be better protected as a minority language than as an official language.

  13. avatar
    Giorgio Vasari

    Legal protection maybe yes, but not subsidies. It could be a futile reason for asking money.

  14. avatar
    Τζινα Πολεμαρχακη

    There is no need any more for only two or three languages to be used officially . Technology is the tool that can offer language flexibility any time ,every where for each one of us with low cost !

  15. avatar
    Jean-Jacques Eiza Lauture Descayrac

    If we support the minority languages, there is a risk to be against the national policies, depending also on the government majorities and the political alternances. This is something entirely part of the subsidiarity issue and national prerogatives and therefore we should not do anything or spend money on that. There are other language priorities, only asking on a pure legal and human right basis, EU member states to respect minority rights, such as the respect of Russian speaking minority rights and all minorities.

  16. avatar
    Mike Oxlittle

    Regarding the topic of minority languages,i’m currently studying Klingon at the University of Kronos,could someone please send me an enormous subsidy?.

  17. avatar
    Yordan Vasilev

    Yes, that’s right. The minority languages should be given legal protection and subsidies. We have a common union.

    • avatar
      James Campbell

      Why not leave it to each nation to decide? There is no EU competence in this area, and no obvious need for one.

    • avatar

      To James Campbell: you’re missing the point. We are talking about minority languages within nations which might not be so friendly to minorities. The issue ranges from real minority rights – preserving their identity, sometimes against the will of the majority if necessary – like Hungarians in Romania for instance – to saving some of Europe’s cultural heritage which includes language and literature. In this case we are talking about saving languages from extinction, from oblivion. There are plenty of such languages in Europe on the brink of extinction.
      I think that the first situation should be a legal obligation of every nation to protect the rights of its minority citizens and the second situation should fall into EU competence, being rather a scientific and cultural issue.

  18. avatar
    Глобалността и ние

    Многото езици не са богатство. Те са проблем,който трудно ще се реши без общ задължителен за всички официален език и това не може да е този, съвременен английски ,нито който и да е друг език.

  19. avatar

    Its the cart before the horse..
    The question should be ..
    Do europeans want to give up their countries and freedom for a selfserving federal ,usa clone..???
    Lets ask first , then act ….!
    We need protection from brussels…!

  20. avatar
    Iulian Ionita

    yes, but real protection otherwise assimilation will spread; beside vlachs other minorities risk to be extinguished in Europe

  21. avatar
    Iulian Ionita

    yes, but real protection otherwise assimilation will spread; beside vlachs other minorities risk to be extinguished in Europe

  22. avatar
    James Campbell

    There is a danger that we turn every issue which appears in a number of European countries into an issue where we feel obliged to consider whether or not there should be a European-wide solution.

    From the point of view of the EU institutions, then clearly there is an issue as to the costs of employing legions of translators and interpreters. However, from the point of view of minority languages in European nations, each nation has to work out their own way, by themselves.

    Language is such a cultural issue and it’s great to be interested in what goes on in other countries; but there is no point in trying to introduce a wider European political dimension to an issue which just doesn’t have one.

    • avatar

      Arabic as well. :)

  23. avatar
    Eduardo Branco

    I think the European Union should encourage the use of english as intereuropean language, the protection of “local” (or national) languages is an issue for the “local” (national) government/states, who must always maintain a very high degree of autonomy in these matters. Furthermore, the EU can not mitigate the role, in the World, of some languages that are apparently of less importance within Europe. For instance, German is spoken by 100 million people in Europe, in fact, the most widely spoken language in the Continent, if we don’t count Russian. Less impressive, French is spoken in Europe by not much more than 60 million people, even so, 6 times more than the number of Portuguese speakers, who round 10 million. But if we look at the World, that’s another story, in fact, this hierarchy is completely reversed. There are up to 250 million Portuguese speakers in the Planet, around 140 million people have French as their first language and, well, nobody is native German speaker outside Europe.

    • avatar

      the protection of “local” (or national) languages is an issue for the “local” (national) government/states
      Local governments often have no interest and no money to protect such languages. Sometimes they are in fact encouraging their dying out. We are talking about salvaging some of our spiritual heritage. This doesn’t mean that someone should pay people to talk every day in – say – istro-romanian (which is spoken in some Croatian villages as far as I know).
      But recording whatever literature they have, translating it and making sure there are at least scholars who can understand it is something reasonable. Perhaps it is possible to even have some EU-funded schools where these languages are still being studied by children.

  24. avatar

    What are they talking about??
    Does anyone on these forums realise that they are railroading federalism . People talk about it and its presented as being the the most normal thing in the world, a walk in the park..
    They in brussels are changing europe and its constitutions without consulting the people whom live here. Who do they think they are, what gall and audasity. Bloody unbelievable!!
    Do we want people like this in charge of our futures, will we give way and surrender what we and others before us fought so hard for???
    We will gain nothing and the loses will be insurmountable with a federal govt..
    Just look at the good ole usa,, 45 million using food stamps, lobbyists and bankers call the shots, war and greed.. Every war in the last 15 years has american roots, including the refugee crises , yes the american govt is good at sowing the seeds of misery for profit. People dying on hospital steps because of no insurance. Gmo,s poisoning the population for profit. Thats also the eu agenda!!
    Thats a fed …Do we want this too?
    The idea of a fed is ok, but it never stays ok, its always taken over by corrupt corporates.
    Europe is sick and not thinking on its own…
    Brussels needs to turn it down a few notches and get back to reality..
    Stop the expansionism/extreemism and represent the people/countries of europe , do your jobs!

    • avatar
      catherine benning

      @ Klassen

      You are so right, I agree with all you wirte. They detest European indigenous people and their civilisation. They are on the road to changing it to something none of us will recognise. And certainly only a handful will want.

  25. avatar

    While we are at it, could we also subsidize the horse-and-cart industry because it is suffering under the competition from the automobile industry? And save vinyl records and cassettes etc… /s

    Sometimes you just have to let nature take its course. Things die out. What’s next, subsidies to bring back Latin, or whatever language spoken by the Visigoths?

    • avatar

      :-) :-) @ horse and cart industry, records and cassettes.

  26. avatar

    Yes, they should be protected like old architecture, science or art. After all, we use words to think.
    Also, I don’t think there is a language without a literature, even if oral. Together with the language, its literature is lost, and literature is art. Who knows what masterpieces get lost this way like monuments blown away by ISIS.
    Even if such languages no longer are being spoken in day-to-day life, we should at least have at scholars capable of understanding them like Greek or Latin. Also, Europe should prioritize studying these languages, recording as much as possible of their grammar, vocabulary and literature before they are gone, as well as translating their literature.

  27. avatar
    EU reform- proactive

    No- globally (forget the EU), ~7 billion Earthlings currently speak about 6,000 different languages, two thirds of these lingo’s are in danger of extinction- so be it!
    A commodity in transit- use it or loose it!

    The oldest (evolved) but surviving “UNWRITTEN language” of the San & Khoi- which reflect all our common human heritage could qualify & worth a scientific preservation effort! But not turned into another (wasteful) political assignment!

  28. avatar
    Vladimir Sterpov

    Give legal protection to Modovan language. The majority call it now Romanian. it’s the poltics of our neighbor. Pobably nobody in Europe won’t be able to do this. Why? no interest, no sponsors. While it is a lot of sponsors for the Romanisation, as profits are huge – a nation + the whole country

  29. avatar
    Limbidis Adrian

    No new languages.
    We need the 28 we got now + English as 2nd union language.
    That’s it,

    We are fragmented as it is.

  30. avatar
    Kutlay Erk

    The official languages of the Republic of Cyprus, by constitution, are Greek and Turkish. Cyprus is a member state of the EU, Turkish is not an official language. Thus, EU is not fair in language matters. It is an embarresment for the EU.

  31. avatar

    Some languages have more similarities than other in EU. As part of cultural diversity I think that even minority languages should be protected. I am interested in learning languages especially those spoken in Europe. This gives me the opportunity to know more on their cultural background.

    • avatar
      Michael Cwik

      For correction, Belgium has three official languages: Dutch – French – German !
      German is spoken in the “Ost-Kantonen” ; the German speaking Community in Belgium (more than 70 000 people) has an own prime-minister, government and parliament. For Belgium German is a regional language, but not, as one might consider on the discussion platform, a non-recognized minority language.
      The whole discussion about minority languages Is biaised by the fact that most of the discussants are arguing from a national standpoint; those languages which are not official languages of the state are considered as minority languages, although such a language can be a majority language at the regional or local level.
      With view to protect minority or indigenious languages, the most efficient way is that in those municipalities where they are still a majority language, the territorial principle would have to be applied at the local level, like in the Swiss Cantons; the local community, politically organised in a municipality, must get souveranity in culture, language and religion, which means, that their “public traditions” (languages in local administration, cultural and religious festing days ect.) cannot be chanced, even not by a democratic majority of people having another mother tongue or religion and which had the right to install themselves in that municipality. These so-called “new-commers” in a municipality have to integrate themselves recognizing the “public traditions” of the popuation which is living since generations or centuries at the concerned place. Only the indigenious community can change their “public traditions”!
      See also in the internet:
      > http://www.europarl.europa.eu/charter/civil/pdf/con212_en.pdf

  32. avatar
    Ben Westhof

    Yes of course! Being of such a minority origin myself, I think it is important to protect minority identities to battle the ongoing cultural globalization!

  33. avatar
    R. Uriarte Pflüger

    We live in a world with about 6000 different languages, about 11000 if we also count sign languages, and it’s stated that within a period of 100 years from the half of the spoken languages up to the 95% could dissapear, as it has happened in Australia with the aboriginal languages, in the last century, from 700 aboriginal languages only 70 remain alive. In this world the exception is not being bilingual. Every language is a unique poit of view, and identity and one of the most (if not the most) important part of a culture; when a language dies a view of the world dies. The answer is clear, we must enssure the use and survival of minority languages, we are in front of a linguistic mass genocide. Just ask yourself and think about it, what would have lost the world if your language never existed?

  34. avatar
    Steffen Schwarz

    Languages are part of our heritage and identity and therefore those at risk should be protected through legal means.

  35. avatar
    Nando Aidos

    Let’s talk about minority duties while we are at it! Like respecting the values and traditions of the country that has welcomed them!

  36. avatar

    Let’s talk about minority duties while we are at it! Like respecting the values and traditions of the country that has welcomed them!

  37. avatar
    Sinéad Ryan

    Catalonia is a prime example. 10m people speak the language, but it cannot be recognised since Spain will not allow catalon to be registered

  38. avatar
    Luis García

    Should majority languages be given legal protection and subsidies?? Do you want a war? do not mess with religions or languages. Study history.

  39. avatar
    Stefano Zuzzi

    Depending where you live..
    If you’re crossing the border between Italy / Slovenia.. may you surprised how many languages are spoken.
    More than a trilinguism.

  40. avatar
    René Aga

    In Belgium Flemish is the majority lenguage. Flemish is Dutch spoken by the Dutch and the Flemish people. Together they are more than 20 million☺

  41. avatar
    Andrea Ciri

    I think the protection of every language is a big part of the work towards European Unity actually – especially since national states may have neglected some of them in the past, for nationalistic reasons.

  42. avatar
    Rubén David Costa

    Absolutely yes, and all of them should be official in the EU! Because we are all European! For example, Valencian / Catalan language, (my mother language) it has more or less the same number of speakers than Greek language, it has 10 million of native speakers and it’s spoken in 3 EU countries, despite of this it is not yet an official language…that’s not fair. Maltese or Irish are official with a low number of speakers! That has to change!

  43. avatar
    Andrej Němec

    All languages were a minority language until more and more people started to speak them and became majority languages. Indeed all languages have the same rights to exist and deserve an effort towards preservation. So the answer is YES. The European Union should keep faith to its own motto, “UNITED IN DIVERSITY”.

  44. avatar
    Jose Luis Mazuela Fernández

    As intellectual advanced human beings, we must build a neutral, global and avanced human language. Once that language is built, we can treat any other language as secondary.

  45. avatar

    Don´t forget the oldest language from europe! BASQUE

  46. avatar

    Don’t forget, the oldest language in Europe is Albanian Language!

  47. avatar

    Bu chòir gu dearbha!
    They definitely should!

  48. avatar

    Although people generally seem to think that English, the language I was raised will never become endangered let alone extinct, this is being taken for granted in Canada and even in the United States. Since 1974 French has been shoved down everyone’s throats in Canada. The same thing with Spanish in the United States. The largely French speaking province of Quebec has just observed 40 years of an oppressive language law that has taken away the rights of English speaking people there. Government services can’t have names in English, only in French; all road signs only have French on them (English words were covered when the law was first enacted); even street names have to be said in French even by English media outlets; also it has become very difficult to get services in English. There are also restrictions for the use of English by private business. As English speaking people in Quebec lose the rights to their language, French speaking people in Ontario where I live enjoy more rights. Even provincial government documentation has to include French on it. Signs in many parts of Ontario have to include French on provincial highways. I live in one of these parts. Also, many English schools have closed in the last few years, 2 of which I attended growing up at the end of this past school year But French schools are opening up everywhere. Even the city where I live is bilingual. And all governments post ads in French in my predominantly English speaking neighbourhood. I feel like a foreigner in my own country. I wouldn’t go to the United States because they’re doing the same thing there with Spanish. I could never feel at home anywhere. America should remain English only just as Mexico only has Spanish. Forget about who originally owned the land, because nobody is innocent. As for Quebec, all they needed to do is make anyone who wasn’t from an English speaking background send their children to French school. No language is worth saving at the expense of anyone’s rights.

  49. avatar

    Modernity and democracy emphasize plurality. If Europe has been upholding democracy and human rights as universal value, it is important to prevent the tyranny of majority. Minority language ought to be legally protected however, not over stressed and disproportionately allocated public resources, particularly in this pandemic period of economic stagnation.

  50. avatar

    China has 56 ethnic minority groups. In minority areas, they are given autonomous status with both their language and culture are preserved and legally protected. Now cultural and rural tourism in these ethnic minority areas are booming, particularly during the pandemic when people cannot go overseas. With the Chinese experience, both culture and language are protected and revived in the alleviation of poverty. Rural housewives are encouraged to bring their children to do embroidery and traditional handcraft to earn an income and take care of their children at the same time. Products are sold to tourists to increase family income. Protection of culture and language need to invest for sustainable development not long-term subsidies.

  51. avatar
    Cristina Apavaloae

    I feel strongly that minority languages deserve legal protection. In modern societies and in European society, we have acknowledged the importance of cultural heritage as a lasting part of uniting local identities rather than divisive nationalist ones and as a source for richness in our art. As a resident of one of Ireland’s strongest Gaeltachts I am amazed at the beauty and variety of new art in the Irish language and the connection it creates between past and present. I can also see in the people around me who have been raised bilingually how much speaking two languages since a young age have benefited them!

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