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).