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Minority Language Protection Legislation: A Sobering Note

The annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine reintroduced the topic of language politics for good. What are some of the drawbacks of modern policies towards minority languages?

June 4, 2018 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Helsinki sign seen from Vantaa Photo: hugovk (cc) flickr.com

Perspectives on preserving the use of languages that are not official in a given state are limited. Nowadays, each state is a culturally and linguistically homogenising polity, especially the nation-states in central Europe and in east and southeast Asia that are ethnolinguistic in their character. Communities that speak (and sometimes write) minority, regional and other non-official languages have two basic options of preserving their languages. First, they can make sure to stay isolated from the homogenising state’s structures and institutions, especially from schools. Compulsory universal elementary education teaches (in other words, imposes) the official language to successive generations of children, ensuring that minority groups’ children are compelled to un-learn their community languages. Another possibility open to minority groups for preserving their languages is a struggle for their own autonomous or fully independent ethnolinguistic nation-states. None of these two options is appealing. The latter entails violence and even bloodshed, while the former means conscious disengagement from advantages (alongside disadvantages) of modernity. Hence, unless the strictures of the current legitimating model of modern statehood (that is, the homogenising in its nature nation-state) are dramatically altered, then each of the still surviving non-state languages will become endangered in the span of three to five generations.

There is no chance that minority language protection legislation as initially developed in interwar Europe and nowadays practiced mainly in continental Europe, from eastern France to Ukraine, and from Scandinavia to the Balkans, is going to reverse this trend. The obverse of such legislation is minority or regional groups’ often long-winded and strenuous campaigns for the official recognition of their languages, so at most they can be offered as a school subject. So much effort invested in such campaigns, activists and the target groups fail to notice that actually they do the bidding of the homogenising nation-state. If a campaign of this kind is successful or not it does not really matter.

In some cases where minority language protection legislation is truly observed, at best this may lead to a slowing down of the decline of in the use of a non-official language. However, much more frequently, homogenising nation-states just pretend to observe such legislation, while in reality they do their institutional best to breach the transfer of a non-official language from one generation of speakers to another. To my knowledge there is not a single case where minority language protection legislation reversed the decline of a non-official language.

Minority languages and minority identities 

After the homogenising nation-state’s initial push against a non-official language, minority speech communities often internalise the homogenising nation-state’s discourse that such non-official languages are ‘not worth much’ (this socio-psychological phenomenon of dislike for or insecurity about one’s first language is known as schizoglossia), that they should be abandoned, while the ‘only way of progress’ is to switch to speaking and writing the state language. From a personal perspective it may be a good solution ensuring social advancement under given circumstances, but from the group perspective it may mean the loss of the minority or regional speech community as a distinctive social and cultural unit. Framers and proponents of minority language protection legislation, without articulating this clearly, adopt a normative assumption that the loss of polyglossia and non-official languages’ speech communities is a bad thing. Whereas, on the other hand, many languages – seen as ‘rich culture’ or ‘cultural riches’ – is a good one. However, they fail to reflect on the validity of this assumption, and do not question their preferred means to achieve this goal, despite a century-worth of numerous proofs that minority language protection legislation does not work, that it is patently not fit for the purpose of reversing language decline and preserving non-official languages’ speech communities.

Under the current political circumstances, within homogenising nation-states, a reversal of the decline of a non-official language can be achieved only if such a language is declared official in a clearly delimited territory, be it the entire polity or in an autonomous region. A clear case in point is the retaining of Swedish as a national and official language of Finland, alongside Finnish, since the nation-state gained independence in 1917, despite the fact that Swedish-speakers account now for 5 per cent of the country’s inhabitants. In 1938 Romansh was recognized as a national language in Switzerland, and in 1998 as an official language. Another example is afforded by the Soviet policy of ‘nativisation’ (korenizatsiia). In the interwar Soviet Union, between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s over a hundred previously unwritten languages were identified, delimited and endowed with writing systems. During this period, all these languages were made official in the communist polity’s thousands of autonomous territories, where Russian was either banned or made be it an auxiliary or second official language.

However even such far-reaching – and at present unthinkable in Europe – measures could be insufficient. In 1922 and 1949 Ireland obtained first partial and subsequently full independence from Britain. Although the Irish Constitution announced Irish to be ‘the national language and the first official language’ of this state, the parallel adoption of the former imperial language of English as ‘a second official language,’ in real-life, reversed the roles of these two languages in Ireland. Fewer than 1 per cent Irish speak the Irish language in everyday life, the vast majority of the population availing themselves exclusively of English. A similar development has been observed in post-Soviet Belarus. Between 1991 and 1994 Belarusian was the country’s sole national and official language. The use of Belarusian spread rapidly across all spheres of social, political, cultural and institutional spheres of public life and also in families and neighborhoods. This trend was stopped in tracks when in 1995 Russian was declared ‘the second official language’ in Belarus. In reality this former imperial language now dominates in Belarus, as indicated by the fact that 80 per cent of the inhabitants speak Russian in everyday life.

Misunderstood understanding of language protection

This toxic linguistic legacy of empires is most clearly visible outside of Eurasia. In Africa, the Americas, Australia and Oceania, imperial languages of European origin either fully replaced or sidelined these continents’ languages. Practically all states on these continents adopted such former European imperial languages as official. The discourse (let alone practice) of minority language protection legislation is not extended to or even considered in these areas. The spatial remit of such legislation is limited to a section of continental Europe inhabited by some 200 to 300 million people, or a mere 4 per cent of the globe’s population of 7.6 billion. Thus far, the success of minority language protection legislation at reversing the decline of non-official languages has been nil. Hence, to a large degree, it is just window-dressing, a futile exercise in pro-democratic rhetoric steeped in the unarticulated assumption that polyglossia facilitates political stability and engenders cultural and economic development.

European states engaging in this rhetoric need minority language protection legislation as another badge that proves their usually fresh democratic credentials. On the other hand, this rhetoric gives false hopes to the speech communities of non-official languages. Most of the homogenising nation-states concerned do not have any intention to observe this legislation, and even if they do, legislation of this kind will not reverse language decline.

It is better not to be blinded in both eyes by illusions, which verges on being delusional. Perhaps that is why nation-states located outside central and (some) eastern Europe never seriously considered adopting this model of minority language protection legislation. First of all, why to extend financial outlays on something that does not work, when there are many more pressing issues on which budget money could be spent more usefully, actually leading to achieving a sought-for goal? And last but not least, why to act on the silent and unproven assumption that preserving and developing polyglossia is good for democracy, stability, culture and economic development? A cursory glance at the Democracy Index points to a correlation between democracy and states with homogenously monolingual populations, while polities with highly multilingual populations tend to be much less democratic. But it is only a correlation, rather one-dimensional and simplistic. More thought should be given to unspoken assumptions, especially if they result in far-reaching and costly policies.

Tomasz Kamusella is reader in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest English-language publications include The Un-Polish Poland, 1989 and the Illusion of Regained Historical Continuity (2017) and Creating Languages in Central Europe During the Last Millennium (2014), alongside the co-edited volumes Creating Nationality in Central Europe, 1880-1950: Modernity, Violence and (Be)Longing in Upper Silesia (2016) and The Palgrave Handbook of Slavic Languages, Identities and Borders (2015).



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