Updated policies needed to support Europe’s linguistic diversity

Maintaining linguistic diversity – both protecting minority languages and promoting language learning – is defined as a strategic political aim in Europe. However, the knowledge base of existing policies and initiatives is in urgent need of updating, in line with Europe’s rapidly changing linguistic landscape.

New forms of communication, mobility and education, and new ideas of multilingualism and multiculturalism challenge existing concepts of multilingualism. According to the ELDIA research project, current policies tend to be based on outdated information and inadequate ideas of ethnicity and language use. Understanding the part that linguistic diversity plays in Europe would enable more effective, targeted support to minority language speakers, whether they belong to indigenous or migrant groups.

The ELDIA project provides data and tools to underpin policies that support linguistic diversity, such as the European Charter for Regional or Minority languages1. The ongoing project has completed focus group interviews and questionnaires in 14 speaker communities (see Map 1): Estonian in Finland and Germany; Hungarian in Austria and Slovenia; Karelian in Finland and Russia; Seto in Estonia and Russia; Kven in Norway; Meänkieli in Sweden; North Sámi in Norway, Sweden Finnish; Vepsian in Russia and Võro in Estonia.


Map 1 - geographic distribution of speaker communities





These non-Indo-European languages all belong to the Finno-Ugric language family. This group of languages includes a wide array of minority languages, with very different histories and socio-economical positions. Many of these languages have been extensively researched in a national or regional framework, but there is far less research into the current multilingualism of these communities from an international, comparative point of view.

By undertaking this research at the European level, ELDIA is generating, for the first time, data on the vitality of these particular minority languages that can be easily accessed and compared. The interdisciplinary research team includes specialists in linguistics, law, media analysis and statistics, many of whom are themselves minority language speakers.

The researchers point out that society interprets multilingualism both positively and negatively. Acquired multilingualism, the learning of major European languages, is viewed positively, and making European citizens multilingual in this sense is even an official goal of language teaching policies. At the same time, policy makers often forget that modern European minorities are inevitably multilingual: they no longer live in isolated communities, but learn both the majority language of their area and international vehicular languages such as English or German. This form of multilingualism should be recognised as an asset.

For example, in Austria and other countries, there is public debate on language acquisition by migrant minority language speaking groups. There are questions about whether the state should invest in support for migrant mother tongues as well as in majority language support for these groups. ELDIA supports the vast body of research from many countries that finds supporting the native language of migrants or minorities has a beneficial impact on the acquisition of majority language skills, enabling the minority group to perform better in these as well.

Research findings to-date:

  • Minorities tend to regard themselves and their challenges as unique whereas there are numerous similarities in their situations.
  • Majority groups’ and policy makers’ interest in minority affairs is extremely low.
  • There is a severe lack of media resources in minority languages.
  • Problems experienced by minority groups such as discrimination, and a lack of resources and educational opportunities, are seldom reflected in the majority media.
  • There is high variation in the degree to which language legislation is implemented at the local level, especially in education.
  • There is an absence or a lack of implementation of legal redress mechanisms in cases of violation of language legislation.
  • Multilingualism is only legally entrenched to a very limited extent – although it may be supported in minority areas, this does not encourage wider multilingualism in society under conditions of mobility and globalisation.

Key policy messages to-date:

  • European consciousness of diversity and multilingualism as part of European cultural heritage and identity should be promoted.
  • Legislation is an important starting point to guarantee language diversity. It should be adopted in cooperation with those concerned, and implemented in practice at national and local levels.
  • Issues of linguistic diversity and multilingualism are complex and need to be approached in a differentiated way.
  • Until recently, linguistic data has been skewed in favour of Indo-European minority languages, and there is a need for more pan-European comparable knowledge on languages and identities.
  • Despite major differences in historical and socio-political conditions, diversity and minority/majority issues show more similarities than minority communities realise, and they could make even better use of opportunities for transnational cooperation offered by the EU.
  • The shared historical roots of minority and majority groups should be recognised and promoted.
  • Awareness of the rights of minorities to participate in the media should be promoted.
  • Minority media forms need to be developed that are accessible and attractive to the younger generation.

Case studies on the vitality of the languages studied, which take into account the views of the 14 speaker communities as well as those of policy makers and stakeholders, will be available in September 2012. The final ELDIA report will be published in 2013 along with a European Language Vitality Barometer (EuLaViBar), a tool which can help measure the state of linguistic diversity and support the coexistence of languages.

1 See: http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/minlang/

ELDIA - European language diversity for all (duration: 1/3/2010 – 31/8/2013). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 5 “The Citizen in the European Union”, Research area 5.2 “Diversities and commonalities in Europe”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).

See: http://www.eldia-project.org/

Contact: Johanna Laakso, johanna.laakso@univie.ac.at; Anneli Sarhimaa, sarhimaa@uni-mainz.de;