Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How much progress have we really made?


by Molly Schwerha
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It has been nearly twenty years since the European community came together in Strasbourg (November 1992) and under with the auspices of the Council of Europe authored the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages). This was a significant step in building a broader understanding of the importance of protecting the historical regional or minority languages of Europe.  Member states of the Council of Europe enacted the Charter to protect and promote Europe’s diverse cultural heritage. They agreed that using a regional minority language in public and private life should be a fundamental right and that actions needed to be taken to do so.  Minority languages should be taught more in education to help keep them from becoming endangered.  Promote these languages and encourage their use in speech, writing, public and private. Great principles in theory, however, it is what is practiced that really matters.   Nearly twenty years later, in the summer of 2009, a new state law was passed by Slovakia which amended Slovakia’s Language Act, challenging the heart and spirit of the treaty developed in Strasbourg.  

The new law which calls for fines up to 5000 Euros for using incorrect Slovak as well as tighter regulations for the use of “correct Slovak” is drawing strong criticism with the European Union. The amended law which effectively bans minority languages from the public realm as well as private conversations is also drawing strong criticism from neighboring Hungary.  According to an article on xpatloop.com, November 9, 2009 entitled “Slovakia Curtails Free Speech Through Restrictive language law” the Hungarian Coalition Party president, Pal Csáky referred to the new law as “linguistic imperialism – pervasive, arbitrary and punitive”.  

In an article on EuroActiv.com, German MEP Michael Gahler has slammed the new Slovak law saying it does not conform to EU standards and it is discriminatory against minority languages.   He has been quoted as saying “Slovakia is violating commonly respected standards in the EU and is disregarding respective recommendations of the Council of Europe, which foresee the extended use of minority languages”.  He went on the say “(Slovakia) risks discrediting itself as an EU member and becoming a totalitarian state again if the new provisions are consistently applies. An example of the new law cited in the xtaloop.com article by the Hungarian Human Rights Organization expresses some of the concerns with the new law.   “Imagine you are in your homeland, purchasing a rail ticket at the local train station.  You walk up to the ticket counter and ask for a ticket in your own language.  The clerk replies in your own language, but the train company is fined for this “crime”.  Is this an Orwellian nightmare?  Unfortunately, no.  As of September 11, 2009, this is a realistic scenario in Slovakia – a member of NATO and the European Union. A country located in the heart of Europe”.  

The question remains, “how much progress have we really made?“ Is this recent change in Slovakia an isolated situation or is it the beginning of a series of changes across the European Union?  Is the basic principles outlined at Strasbourg at risk?  Are regional and minority languages actually getting the respect that they deserve? This is violating the Charter enacted by the Council of Europe.  I would like to hear more from the people of Slovakia.  Please feel free to respond to the comments section.  


Molly Schwerha is a senior in Childhood Education at the University of Illinois. She composed this blog entry while enrolled in the European Union Center’s Language and Minorities in Europe (418) cross-listed course that she took to learn more about issues in bilingual education in the EU.


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