Europe’s forgotten words. The case of the European Regional and minority languages

Article written by Gabrielle Bernoville, in English.

Cefalù, Sicilia – Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash

Kaixo Dear friends of the European-Natolin Bubble!

History and a centralized schooling system are two forces to reinforce out the supremacy of the declared- national languages over the so-called regional dialects.

At least, this is the often-reaffirmed wish of the French Republic since the third Republic and the unmemorable times of Jules Ferry. It is therefore only in a few cases that toddlers born in the French hexagon are educated and raised in one of the, yet numerous, local dialects.

Consequently, only 1.44% of the overall population speaks Alsatian, surpassing the Occitan speaking population (1.33%) whereas Breton neighbour only comprises 0.61% of the French citizens, 70% of which are over 60 years old. Only two “regional” minority languages stand apart: Corsican and the language of my forefathers: ’Euskara (Basque) : Corsican has been revived in public spheres and in schools in the local media through the voluntarist lobbying and the joint efforts of the autonomous government – adopted nowadays by more than 60% of the island’s inhabitants (Link – Unesco Index). Euskara’s development followed similar steps although the teaching of Basque in Iparralde (Part of the Basque country located in France) schools have attracted only a minority of citizens in the last thirty years (Unesco Index).

History and a centralized schooling system are two forces to reinforce out the supremacy of the declared- national languages over the so-called regional dialects.

These cases echoed the stories of neighbours’ “regional and local languages” all over Europe. In all in, while nearly half of the approximately six thousand spoken languages in the world are in danger of disappearing, the European Parliament Research Service estimated that one out of ten European (in other terms, 50 million people) speak one of its 60 regional and minority languages usually addressed as ‘RMLs’.

On the international stage, RMLs are recognized as a constituting part of the humanity’s intangible cultural heritage. The Unesco, the Council of Europe, The OSCE (Oslo Recommendations) have often expressed their concern regarding the linguistic extinction risks incurred by many communities and have filed several actsto ensure the protection and promotion of linguistic rights although it was not mandatory. Moreover, “non-respect for regional or minority communities’ linguistic rights” is internationally consideredas racial discrimination. Yet, language policies remain an exclusive competence of the sovereign Member States and thepolitical and economic framework of the EU often hamper the efforts of its institutions in favour of promoting and protecting the RMLs. The action of the EU encompasses education-related initiatives, the production of RML teaching materials and some research work on modern-world RML terminology.

As a definition, it is worth bearing in mind that no clear-cut border between dialects and state or regional languages exists at the European level. The huge disproportion between the number of speakers of world languages was pointed out by a March 2003 study realized by ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).

According to the UNESCO’s report, 97% of the world’s population speaks about 4% of the world’s languages (English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic amongst others) while only about 3% speaks 96% remaining languages.

Thus, what does the EU doing favour of the protection of RMLs?

The European Union has/usesas many as 24 official languages listed in its article 55(1) of the TFEU.

The convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms edited in November 1950 – Article 14, and the 1981 Council of Europe’s Recommendation 928 embody two early answers. This pioneering work has been reinforced by the 1992 Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe’s 1992 the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (ECRML), which entered into force in 1998. To conclude this stroll along the European political framework: Resolution 1985 of the Council of Europe (CoE) which entered into force in 2014 also targets the situation and rights of national minorities in Europe byintroducing education in minority languages and allowing media to operate and provide services in minority languages.

As a result of the, RMLs are usually considered in terms of the conservation of Europe’s cultural wealth and traditions in the context of European unity without threatening the status of official languages.

However, the charter does not provide any criterion or definition for an idiom to be a minority or a regional language, and the classification stays in the hands of the national state.

Additionally, only 17 out of 28-member states have signed and ratified it. Belgium, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Bulgaria are still turning a deaf ear while France, Italy, and Malta have not ratified it yet. The latters are therefore committed to respecting their RMLs but not to promoting their use in public life.

Quid of the regional and minority languages henceforth?

Not entirely: The legal framework of the EU may be blurry on the question, Article 165(2) and 167 of the TFEU support in fact the teaching and dissemination of the Member States’ languages on one hand, and ensure the protection of national and regional diversity on the other. It also distinguishes between autochthonous stateless languages (Breton) – over 75% of the total RMLs according to a 2004 study of the Commission-, autochthonous cross-border languages (North Sami), cross-border languages, non- territorial languages (Romani or Yiddish). Subsequently, only five European regional languages own a semi-official language status and benefit from an arrangement between the Council and the member state: Scottish Gaelic, Welsh for the UK, and Galician, Catalan, Basque in the case of Spain.

No less than 128 languages would be endangered in Europe- among them Basque and Welsh but also Kashubian, Scots, Breton, and Sami.

The Mosaic study conducted by the Commission, estimates that the total number of RMLS in the European countries is over 60. Between seven and ten million people are native speakers of Catalan not only in Spain but also France and Italy (Sardinia). As Maltese, Catalan is considered as an “endangered minority language” although it is a language used in classrooms.

Lastly, the Mosaic study of the Commission pointed out that Europe is one of the most linguistically homogenous continents. Its population speaks only 3% of the world’s languages, even though no less than 128 languages would be endangered in Europe- among them Basque and Welsh but also Kashubian, Scots, Breton, and Sami. Romani, nonetheless, spoken by more than 4.6 million people stands apart. The EU- funded an interesting standard online course platform dedicated to the teaching of Romani: Romaninet.

In regards to the EU’s institutional framework supporting regional and minority languages, one must bear in mind that the actions of the EU are limited by the subsidiarity principle. Local and central authorities are the ones firstly in charge of these questions. EU bodies can only sustain and strengthen their actions and help preserve the European intangible heritage. Nonetheless, RMLs are targeted in a decision N. 1934/2000/EC – on the European year of Languages 2001 – which included the promotion of Irish and Letzeburgesch.

The Council also called on to the members for as diversified a language offer in language policy as possible in a 2002 Resolution on linguistic diversity and language learning.

The Commission, concurrently, support the development of a language policy back in the 1980s, provided specific funding for RMLs. The European-level one was established in 1983 under the name of an Action Line for the promotion and Safeguard of Minority and Regional languages and Culture. The plan covered the creation of a series of networks, the implementation of expert-based reports and the circulation of good practices. A remarkable point is the fact that this funding was dismantled in 2001 on the word of the European Court of Justice (Judgment C-106/96) ruling that there was no legal basis for such a program. Subsequently, the Commission’s 2003 action plan for Promoting Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity also offered some propositions to support RML groups. According to this plan, all European Universities should actually, promote national and regional languages in competition with English and also advised to use the structural funds to promote the RMLs.

All European Universities should actually, promote national and regional languages in competition with English and also advised to use the structural funds to promote the RMLs.

Furthermore, Mercator, a novelty of the 2007-2013 multiannual financial framework, launched a series of European networks aimed at centralizing and financing Lifelong Learning and SMLs programs.

RMLs have been likewise integrated into the New Framework Strategy for Multilingualism (COM – 2005-596), putting emphasis on the cross-cultural understanding and research projects. Encouraging the RMLs communities, the 2005 framework, treated for the first time these dialects and languages on an equal footing with the dominant languagesby including both of them in the EU funding. The Commission pursued its proactive action with the Volangteer pilot project, funded likewise by the lifelong learning program. Volangteer was designed initially to promote Galician and Frisian relying on a network of young volunteers, and ambitioned to better integrate Erasmus program students with the local population.

Nevertheless, either the multifaceted Eurogroupe crisis of 2012 or the priorities of the Juncker Commission shifted the focus to another public topic, and the question of RMLs faded away.

The Committee of the Regions has been very active in this field too. Its 2011 opinion on protecting and developing historical linguistic minorities it called for ‘a specific policy on linguistic minorities that is adequately funded and underpinned by a firmer legal basis’.

The role of the European Parliament should not be underestimated either.

Back in 1981, the Hemicycle published a resolution, which resulted in funding actions in this domain. The EP adopted various resolutions and statements, stressing the importance of RMLs in new technologies or funding plans. The EP is also proud of having raised awareness among candidate countries inciting them to take steps to protect their linguistic diversity. Similarly, its 2003 resolution pressured the Commission to set up a European agency on linguistic diversity and language learning to promote multilingual Europe and a language-friendly environment and stressed cross-border cooperation among regional and minority communities. Its action included among others a 2013 resolution on endangered European languages and a 2015 declaration raising attention on the severe situation of some dialects across the continent, and called upon the Commission to increase financial support. Its intergroup for Traditional Minorities and National Communities and languages also carried on several actions and projects (hearings on language discrimination in the EU, multilingual panels on regional languages, fighting language discrimination and addressing recommendations to the Commission).

European Regional and Minority languages – by

Published by LA REGIONISTO

La Regionisto focuses on regional economic, political or cultural issues. Its aim is to enable everyone to deepen their curiosity for various regions of Europe and beyond, in a classic or fun way. We welcome articles written in any language and from any approach!

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