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World: Dying Words -- EU Expansion To Affect Minority Languages (Part 2)

  • Charles Carlson

The growth of English within the European Union may put at risk the vitality of the EU's minority languages. This was one of the subjects debated at a recent conference of international linguists held in the Czech capital, Prague. In this second of a two-part series on "Dying Words," RFE/RL reports that some of the EU's prospective members fear their native languages may become "second-class citizens" once they join the bloc next year.

Prague, 15 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Frisian is a minority language spoken in the north of the Netherlands.

Tjeerd de Graaf from the Frisian Academy in the Dutch city of Ljouwert says the Frisian language has "about 300,000 speakers, so you can consider it as a minority language, not endangered, but it is a minority in the Netherlands. The situation in the province is that there is bilingual education, it has its own literature, we have bilingual signposts, etc., but this has happened only after a kind of emancipation in the last 50 years."

De Graaf believes the minority languages of countries that are already members of the European Union are not being fully integrated into the existing bloc, despite EU efforts to do so.

This calls into question the fate of minority languages from the 10 mostly Central and Eastern European countries that are due to join the bloc next year.

At present, the EU has 11 official languages -- Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish. The languages of each member state are considered official and working languages of the European Parliament and the European Commission in Brussels.

But according to the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, translation rights are routinely violated because working documents are seldom available in all 11 languages. English has gradually replaced French as the EU's preferred language for external communication.

The 10 countries that will join the EU next year are operating under the assumption that their languages will have the same rights as the bloc's other official languages. And it is, indeed, the official policy of the EU to recognize the state languages of the new countries as official languages of the expanded bloc.

In practice, however, this is unlikely, since the EU's present interpretation and translation services are already stretched to the limit. In 2001, the total cost of translation and interpretation at all EU institutions was approximately 690 million euros ($777 million), or about two euros per year for every EU citizen.

Professor Ferenc Kiefer is a linguist and a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He was the organizer of the 17th International Congress of Linguists in Prague last month. Kiefer says he fears for the future of some of the lesser-used languages of nations joining the EU.

"With more and more countries joining the [European] Union, a major problem is the problem of lesser-used languages in the union, bilingualism, minority languages, etc., so these languages need not be endangered," Kiefer says. "But since they are lesser-used, it may happen that a situation will develop in which such-and-such a language, a lesser-used language, will be just a home language, and in an official context they would use, say, English as a [common language]. And this kind of situation has to be handled somehow."

But as Kiefer points out, while the EU should be linguistically prepared to receive the new countries, each acceding country must likewise develop the linguistic technology needed to join the EU.

"It has been known for many years now that each country must also be linguistically prepared for the union. So one way of doing that is to develop the necessary linguistic technologies. If you just think of how to use a computer, the computer should be able to be used in Czech, in Hungarian, etc., not just in English, so the instructions should be available in the native language -- but not only that. There are many other things that have to be solved," Kiefer says.

Kiefer says one such challenge is developing speech synthesis or speech analysis in order to automatically generate speech, and the reverse, converting speech into text. If these technologies are not developed, Kiefer notes, all official business will be conducted in English and smaller languages will suffer.

There is also the question of minority languages within the countries that will join the EU. Kiefer says a distinction must be made between minority languages that are spoken only by an ethnic minority in a given country and those that are the language of one country but are also spoken in other countries. For example, he points out that Hungarian -- an official language in one country -- is spoken in parts of Slovakia as a minority language.

"But Hungary has Hungarian as an official language, so this is then a task of Hungary's language policy to support schooling, etc., in Hungarian for these minorities. In this sense, Hungarian is a minority language," he says.

De Graaf from the Frisian Academy notes there are more than 30 minorities within the EU as it now exists with claims for recognition as minority languages, and they should also receive some kind of cultural status in their respective countries.

He says one of the tasks of the Frisian Academy is to discuss the role of the new countries joining the union and to make an inventory of the respective minority languages. The academy has links with the Kashubyan, a small ethnic group in Poland that has its own distinct language, like the Frisians.

Linguists' concerns over the survival of Europe's minority languages may be overblown. Through its European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages (EBLUL), the EU funds a number of programs for the benefit of the estimated 40 million citizens of EU states who regularly speak a regional or minority language.

The EBLUL is an independent nongovernmental organization that has observer status in the Council of Europe, UNESCO, and the UN. Its role is to safeguard minority languages in EU member states and, presumably, the minority languages of the countries that will join the EU.

But EBLUL Secretary-General Markus Warasin says its efforts are hampered by the lack of a clear EU linguistic policy.

"There will be some problems integrating all the new languages because the European Union has not really a very clear picture of its linguistic policy. They have a clear vision about the official state languages, but their position toward the lesser-used languages is not that clear as you might presume," Warasin says.

He adds that protecting and promoting lesser-used languages also lacks a firm legal basis.

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