Minority Languages and Multilingualism in Europe and in the European Union

By Vizi, Balázs | European Studies, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Minority Languages and Multilingualism in Europe and in the European Union


Vizi, Balázs, European Studies


Abstract

Linguistic rights are usually in the forefront of minority protection measures and international documents regard linguistic rights as particularly important. The most important international documents on linguistic rights: the ECRML, the relevant articles of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the relevant OSCE documents, all reflect a minority-focused language rights approach. Meanwhile, the European Union is officially promoting the idea of multilingualism both in its policy towards its official languages and more modestly in some political documents recognising minority languages. This article offers an interpretation of the role of linguistic diversity in the European Union, whether the existing legal regime on the use of languages at international and EU levels are likely to promote a truly multilingual Europe or displaying more limited goals. Additionally, this paper also analyses in this wider context, the main documents adopted in EU bodies on the situation of minority languages and linguistic minorities within the Union.

Introduction

Today in Europe Union Member States, around 40 million people - almost 1 0 percent of the total population - speak languages different from the majority language in their own country. Within the EU, besides the 23 official languages of the 27 Member States more than 60 regional or minority languages are spoken which enjoy very different legal positions in their countries Quaristi, Reagan and Tonkin 2008, 47-72). Some regional or minority languages enjoy official status, others are just recognised by the state with a limited sphere of use, while there are some countries where there is no legal recognition of minority languages. This shows a great variety of state language policies and their approach towards the recognition of a plurilingual society.

Moreover, besides this objective plurilingualism, from a subjective point of view we can observe that plurilingualism is not the exception, but rather the rule among those who speak minority languages as their mother tongue, as most of them speak also the official language of their state. In this perspective the social reality in many European countries raises questions related to the legal recognition of various non-official languages. Language, besides being a tool of communication between people, is also a cultural tool, which may express peoples' believes, thoughts, traditions, and identity. The sense of community is often expressed by the use of a common language which reflects a common knowledge about the community itself. The modern nation-state, which recognises its population as one political community within the realm of its regulatory competencies, tends also to control the use of languages (see also Piergigli 2001, 9-119). However, the increasing co-operation among European states in the field of human rights protection, especially within the context of the European Union offers a new perspective to the regulation of language rights. This chapter makes an attempt to identify the European Union's role in maintaining linguistic diversity in Europe. Before doing so, it is important to see what the motivations are behind regulating language use and how international and European law structures the regulative discourse on multilingualism or plurilingualism in Europe, with a primary focus on the recognition of minority languages.

The situation of minority languages in Europe

From a historical perspective the social role of language in integrating the different groups of society was so strong, that in the 1 9th century it led to the glorification of language as the symbolic tool of national unity. As a consequence the nationalist movements of that period, which largely contributed to creating modern nation-states inclined to degrade or subjugate other dialects and non-dominant languages within the developing constitutional framework.

National and cultural identity can not always be defined by linguistic differences between groups, but in a European context language often provides the most significant building block of national, cultural community identity. …

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