Call for ‘civic disobedience’ to save minority languages

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Action at grassroots rather than EU level holds the key to ensuring the survival of minority languages such as Galician, heard a major conference at the European Parliament last week, with participants calling for an end to oppressive legislation like Slovakia's language law. 

Agreeing that institutionalmeasures to save endangered languages can only go so far, stakeholders stressed the importance of promoting their use in daily life.

"Progress has been made at institutional level, but to make it real we need grassroots action, civic disobedience and direct action to ensure that things change on the ground," said Sid Morgan of Plaid Cymru, a political party in Wales. 

Minority languages are a sensitive issue in Slovakia, where 10% of the population speaks Hungarian as a first language.

The Slovak parliament passed a new Language Act on 30 June 2009. The amended law, tabled by Culture Minister Marek Ma?'ari?, introduced fines of up to €5,000 for using 'incorrect' Slovak. 

The law also enforced stricter official regulation for 'correct' Slovak. For example, memorials and plaques featuring texts in both Slovak and a foreign language must not carry a foreign inscription that is larger than the Slovak one. 

Hungary has protested to the European Parliament and the United Nations over Slovakia's language law, which it says discriminates against the country's Hungarian minority.

Dirk Rochtus, a professor at Lessius University College in Antwerp, warned that the row may eventually lead to the break-up of Slovakia and urged the government to communicate its policies more effectively.

"A desire to create extra bureaucracy and oppress the Hungarian minority may not be the reasoning behind the law, but that's certainly the impression the Slovak government is creating," he said.

Rochtus speculated that the law "could be motivated more from a protecting Slovakia point of view, but the problem is that the positions are becoming more entrenched on both sides".

"It may lead to autonomy for the ethnic Hungarians in the end," he concluded, warning that the European Commission can only act if EU and international laws on minority rights were clearly being breached.

"The law makes things more difficult for the Hungarian minority, but perhaps not enough for the Commission to react. We can't really talk about breaches until we see the fines being imposed," Rochtus said.

Last year, European Free Alliance MEPs urged the EU to use legal changes introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force across the European Union on 1 December 2009, to protect the rights of linguistic minorities (EURACTIV 01/12/09).

 "The Slovak language law is a carbon copy of a Latvian language law that appeared in 1995, but this was dropped under pressure from the EU. Now Slovakia is in the EU [language protection] doesn't seem to matter any more, so we have double standards," said Tatjana Zdanoka MEP (PCTVL, Latvia), a member of the European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament.

"Either Europe is a Europe of cultures, or Europe will die," she added.

"Part of the problem is the terms used to describe languages by the EU itself," said Bill Bowring, a professor at Birkbeck College at the University of London, claiming that the bloc's use of terms like 'main', 'most widespread', 'less widespread', 'less widely used', 'minority' and 'less taught' makes clear that despite the formal equality of the EU's 23 official languages, "it is clear that there is a hierarchy of languages in Europe".

Referring to the Council of Europe's Convention on Regional and Minority languages, which only 16 of the 27 EU member states have ratified, Bowring said "if the EU is serious about protecting language rights, then there must be serious moves to make sure that all its members have ratified this charter".

"The EU picture is extremely unsatisfactory. There is contradiction and confusion, and some member states are in violation of a charter that they have signed," he added.

Referring to Estonia and Latvia, both of which have Russian-speaking minorities, Vadim Poleshchuk, a legal analyst at the Legal Information Centre for Human Rights in Estonia, said "the language issue is the most controversial issue of contemporary politics" in both countries.

Poleshchuk, who said there were suspicions that Russian language campaigns are being run by the Russian secret service, said "the Estonian and Latvian authorities don't like it when their language policies are criticised by outsiders".

Maria Pilar García Negro, a professor at the University of A Coruña in Galicia, said a language is an abstract notion and cannot be defined by number of speakers or the country in which it is spoken.

"Talking about a state language automatically creates sub-categories of languages," she warned, declaring: "Either languages are given to you by a government body, or they are claimed by their speakers as a human right. I prefer the second option".

Speaking in her native Galician, García Negro said "some people think Galician can be saved if you try to impose regular doses of it. But a language needs to be part of the air that we breathe as human beings".

"Galician needs to be set free, for economic as well as social reasons. Its unbridled use should be promoted. Normalising Galician would not be to the detriment of anyone," she said, insisting that "we need to move away from repression, regulation and redundancy and abandon the 'freedom with restrictions on use' model".

"The Slovak language law flies in the face of all the EU is trying to achieve," said the secretary-general of a Belgian NGO dealing with human rights in Central Europe. "A member state pursuing a law against the language of another member state, an official language of the EU and 10% of its own population, [runs against] European principles and has no precedent in Europe," he added.

The MEPs were speaking at the 'Language Diversity: A Challenge for Europe' conference, organised last week (4 March) by the European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament.

The conference, held at the Parliament's Brussels premises, gathered minority language stakeholders from across the EU, among whom were native speakers of Catalan, Welsh Corsican and Galician.

According to estimates, around 40m people regularly speak over 60 non-recognised European languages in the EU. 

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