Minority languages fight for survival in the digital age

Language is about much more than just about talking to each other; it’s one of the bases of identity and culture. But as the world becomes increasingly globalised and reliant on technology, English has been reinforced once again as the lingua franca.

The technological infrastructure that now dominates our working and private lives is overwhelmingly in English, which means minority languages are under threat more than ever.

But it might also be true that technology could help us bring minority languages to a wider audience. If we work out how to play the game right, we could use it to help bolster linguistic diversity rather than damage it.

As more public services go online, the language in which those services are presented is all important. At the European level, around 55 million speak languages other than one of the EU’s official languages. In the UK, the total speakers of Welsh, Cornish, Scottish Gaelic and Irish number hundreds of thousands.

Language technology advances mean it will be possible for people to communicate with each other and do business with each other, even if they don’t speak the same language.

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Kulturfonden Conference on Multilingual Education from a Minority Language Perspective

This successful conference was held in Brussels on 15 November, 2013, on the latest trends in education across Europe from a minority language perspective.

Under the title Education, a life-changing experience, this year’s conference  focused on the importance of education from a minority language perspective. Some of the examples discussed by key European figures in the field were; Dutch, French or German in Belgium, Catalan in Valencia, the Balearic Islands and Catalonia, Swedish in Finland, Finnish in Sweden and Breton in France.

It’s up to the majority

Svenska kulturfonden (Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland) annually organises an international seminar on language minority issues. This year’s seminar took place on 13 November 2012 in Brussels and the focus was on the linguistic majority: “It is important that the members of society representing the linguistic majority not only understand the position of the minority but also act accordingly” (a quote from the seminar programme). The keynote speaker at the seminar was Martti Ahtisaari, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former president of Finland. In this article, I will concentrate on the speakers who dealt with Swedish as minority language in Finland.

Martti Ahtisaari, who many remember from resolving conflicts in different corners of the world, such as Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Central Asia, is also working on minority language issues. In his peace mediating work, respect and consideration for local (minority) languages plays a major part. In 2010 he was nominated chairman of the action plan to strengthen the national languages in Finland. He reminded us of the fact that although only 5.4 % of Finland’s population have Swedish as their mother tongue, legally they are not a minority because according to the constitution they have the right to use their mother tongue everywhere. However, even though their rights are in many ways respected, there are problems in the implementation of legislation, particularly in public services, such as health care and the court of law. That’s why a systematically implemented action plan is needed, as well as concrete tools to put it into action. There is an economic cost of maintaining minority languages, so naturally the country in question will have to be willing and able to invest in it. Ahtisaari pointed out that even if each country has a different language situation, we can still draw comparisons between minority languages in different countries and learn from each other. “We need more egalitarian policies. Europe needs an Index of Good Governance, similar to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. We should perhaps invite people to the Nordic countries to see what we’re doing. Encouragement is, however, always better than naming and shaming.” He also said that many policies can be strengthened from the grass root level: Why do Swedish speaking Finns often switch to Finnish when a Finnish speaker joins the conversation? Defend your own language!

We were also introduced best practices in the public sector. One of them was the case of bilingual health care in Finland, which was presented by Aki Lindén, Director at Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa. He introduced the language programme of the district, which uses language ambassadors, grants to personnel who use Swedish at work and language courses to personnel. He said they were receiving good feedback so far but one of the problems is to find doctors to match patients in highly specialized areas.

There was also an example from Finland among the best practices from the private sector. It concerned Swedish service in Finland. Assistant Professor Jonas Holmqvist from Bordeaux Management School enlightened us with examples which go to show that many international companies which are multilingual elsewhere are monolingual in Finland. According to him, Swedish speaking Finns should demand service in Swedish themselves. In Finland political considerations don’t play a major role unlike in Belgium, for example, which means that companies don’t lose customers even if they don’t use minority languages.

Again, it all boils down to individual actions, combined with community which engages its citizens; good schooling where ideologies are exchanged; political goodwill and sometimes some good fortune, too. What was most remarkable though was the fact that everyone seemed to agree that what happens on the ground is most important, after all. So, start acting for minority languages today!

Regional and Minority Languages: An inevitable decline?

Martin Dowle, Director British Council Ukraine, presented the language situation in Wales at last week’s Language Rich Europe launch in Kyiv. In this blog post, he summarises the approaches Wales is taking in order to promote Welsh and prevent its decline.

Is it inevitable that minority languages will always suffer decline? The case of Welsh shows this does not need to be the case. Since its low point in 1991, when just 18% of the Welsh population spoke Welsh, it has started to make a modest recovery. Today, 37% of 3 to 14 year-olds are able to speak Welsh, compared to just 15% in 1971, fuelling recovery from the cradle upwards.

Today, there are an estimated 611,000 Welsh speakers in Wales. Of these, 315,000 are native speakers, and the rest have competency, as a second language, to a greater or lesser degree.

Official figures suggest Wales loses between 1,200 and 2,200 native speakers every year. The number of communities – mostly rural — where 70% or more are native speakers continues to decline. But more people now speak (and are learning) Welsh as a second language in cities such as Cardiff than ever before.

In part this reflects a change in attitude to Welsh amongst non-Welsh speakers. Recent polling suggested 80% of Welsh people saw the language as something to be proud of. This is a far cry from the hostility that greeted the decision by the government in the early 1980s to set up a fourth TV channel solely in Welsh. Attitudes have changed, and this matters.

In 2000, the teaching of Welsh became compulsory in all schools up to the age of 16. The number of Welsh-medium schools is growing, as are measures to build the capacity of teachers to teach through the medium of Welsh.

But the Welsh government’s policy argues the school setting is not enough. Policy seems to me to focus on two areas.

First: the home. It encourages mothers and social carers, midwives, and nursery education to help develop the adoption of Welsh as a first language. If two parents speak Welsh, it’s estimated the chances the child will too are around 80%. If only one speaks Welsh, the chances are halved.

Second: the leisure activities of adolescents. The language is at risk if young people don’t see the benefit of speaking it, or think it’s cool to switch to English. So an effective language policy needs to consider youth culture, peer-group pressure, community attitudes, the global media and social networking. Providing enough cultural and social value to tip the balance in favour of Welsh is a big ask – but it’s essential to long-term survival. So policies really do need to focus on the language of ‘interaction’.

Read more about languages in Wales on the Language Rich Europe website and in our previous blog posts:

Language Rich Europe Launch – Wales
– Can Google Speak Welsh?
Speaking Welsh, Living in Brussels

Today’s launch: Hungary


Did you know that…

“Act LXXVII of 1993 on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities recognized 13 minority languages: Armenian, Bulgarian, Croatian, German, Greek, Gypsy (Romani and Boyash), Polish, Romanian, Ruthenian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovene and Ukrainian. Act XLIII of 2008 included Gypsy languages (Romani and Boyash) under the scope of the commitments of the Republic of Hungary under Article 2(2) of the Charter. There is official provision in nation-wide education for all the 13 languages referred to in the Nationalities Act. At present, there are 927 kindergartens with a minority education programme (21% of all kindergartens in Hungary), however, only 9 are maintained by minority self-governments.”

The launch takes place at the British Embassy in Budapest.

The speakers at this launch are:

  • Simon Ingram-Hill, Director British Council Hungary
  • Miklós Soltész, State Secretary for Social, Family and Youth affairs
  • HE Jonathan Knott, British Ambassador to Hungary
  • Martin Hope, Language Rich Europe Project director
  • Eilidh McDonald, Language Rich Europe Project coordinator
  • Dr Habil Csilla Barhta, Senior Research Fellow, Research Center for Multilingualism

Guus Extra: Ukraine is already practising trilingualism

Below is an interview with Guus Extra, Professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He recently gave a series of lectures in the leading Ukrainian universities on the topics of language situation in Europe, multiculturalism, minority languages and other similar issues. The lectures were very successful and received positive feedback from more than 330 participants. Please find a shortened version of the article below (in Ukrainian) and a link to the full article at the end (also in Ukrainian). Professor Guus Extra was interviewed by Maria Fronoschuk.

Гуус Екстра: «Україна вже живе в умовах трилінгвізму»

Чим більше мов знаєш, тим більше шансів знайти себе у цьому великому світі. Але всіх мов не вивчиш. Аби зрозуміти, якими мовами говоритиме світ завтра, «Платформа» зустрілася з професором з Нідерландів, завідувачем кафедри мов і меншин Тілбурзького університету, Гуусом Екстра. Він завітав в Україну в рамках програми British Council «Багатомовна Європа». Пан Гуус Екстра спеціалізується на питаннях мовної адаптації іммігрантських меншин та освіти на національному та європейському рівнях. Користуючись нагодою ми також розпитали професора про його бачення мовної ситуації в Україні.

Як вирішувати проблеми, які виникають у багатомовних країнах?

В рамках свого візиту в Україну я провів лекцію для студентів Національного лінгвістичного університету. Я вирішив присвятити її висвітленню ідеї трилігнвізму, так званої «трилінгвістичної формули», яку сьогодні активно просуває Європейська Комісія. Що це таке? Як, власне, зрозуміло з назви, вона полягає у створенні лінгвістичної системи, у якій функціонувало б три мови. Якщо ми говоримо про Європейський Союз, то ця ідея втілюється таким чином. Першою, але, що важливо, не домінантною, є мова країни, в якій ви живете. Тут все виглядає дуже просто, але насправді воно таким не є. Річ у тім, що з глобалізацію значного масштабу набула і міграція. Тобто сьогодні для більшості (близько 60%) людей державна мова фактично є вже другою після рідної. Ця тенденція актуальна для усієї Західної Європи. Другою є мова «інтернаціонального престижу». Зрозуміло, що Комісія, намагаючись бути толерантною, відкрито не каже, що це англійська. Зроби вона так, наприклад, Франція одразу образилась би. Але всі ми розуміємо реальний стан речей. Навіть у початковій школі діти обов’язково вивчають англійську. І нарешті третя мова – «мова персональної адаптації». Вона, перш за все, актуальна для емігрантів. Це може бути турецька, арабська, сомалі та будь-яка інша мова країни, з якої приїхали люди. Ця формула є універсальною і може застосовуватися будь-де.

Як ви можете прокоментувати мовну ситуацію в Україні?

Україна, на мою думку, не є винятком із загальносвітових тенденцій. Після коректної оцінки ситуації, стає зрозуміло, що ви вже застосовуєте цю трилінгвістичну формулу. Тобто маєте свою власну українську мову як державну та офіційну, так само використовуєте англійську як мову «престижу», а домінантна національна меншина спілкується російською. І, на перший погляд, це абсолютно нормально. Наскільки я знаю, в Україні налічується близько 13 мов національних меншин. Але ваша проблема в тому, що кількість російськомовного населення значно перевищує кількість носіїв інших мов. Цим Україна чимось нагадує мені Литву. Там, як ви знаєте, російська довгий час була мовою «престижу» та домінувала над національною. Але зараз пріоритети змінилися, і тим, хто послуговувався лише російською, доводиться вчити державну мову. У випадку України – це цілковито політичне питання. І вирішувати його слід так само на політичному рівні.

Наскільки я зрозумів, в вашій країні зараз панівною патріотичною ідеєю є збереження тільки однієї державної мови – української. Жодних «українська + російська». Зараз ви намагаєтеся направляти людей, агітувати їх спілкуватися українською, робити так, щоб саме вона була мовою науки, політики тощо. Але треба пам’ятати, що мови національних меншин також потрібно підтримувати, хоча б на регіональному рівні. Маємо схожу ситуацію в Нідерландах. І в нас вона вирішується просто: представники національних меншин продовжують спілкуватися своєю мовою, можуть вільно робити це, але мусять знати і державну.

Повний текст інтервю можна знайти на сайті http://www.platfor.ma/articles/guus-extra/