Wednesday, November 14, 2012

“Use it or lose it!” What has been achieved with or without the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages?

by Zsuzsanna Fagyal-Le Mentec |

"Commemorating is remembering the first step of a journey of a thousand miles…" (Unknown)

Twenty years ago on November 5th 1992, an important step was taken towards protecting small languages in Europe. The Council of Europe’s landmark international convention, called the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages was opened for signature, calling on the Council’s member states to protect and promote the small languages that have been spoken in their territories for centuries. The European Union Center and participating centers and units on the Urbana campus organized a one-day symposium on November 5, 2012 to reflect on the progress in implementing and monitoring the Charter, and discuss the effects of lack of protection of languages in greater Europe.   

1.    Here is why we did it…
Not speaking a language on a daily basis increases the risk of losing it forever. Words start coming slowly, stylistic nuances are lost in communication, and mistakes never made before begin popping up in speech and writing. Eventually, language attrition (the linguists’ word for it) can lead to language loss and language shift, i.e. switch to the exclusive use of other languages. The same is true for communities of people. Not being able to use a language for reading and writing, pleading in court, listening to a priest marrying a couple, or buying stamps in the post office can be the beginning of the end for languages spoken by small groups of people. This is why – besides being spoken and heard at home – all languages need some form of administrative and political support to function in public life.






And this is where the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages comes in…

In its Preamble, the Charter declares its intentions to protect and promote “the right to use a regional or minority language in private and public life”. It works through voluntary compliance by the Council’s member states, which amounts to behaving socially responsibly in pursuit of a good public image! Therefore, one question we’ve asked the Symposium participants is this: How is the implantation and monitoring of the Charter coming along (and does voluntary compliance really work)?    

The Charter helps countries that sign and ratify the document figure out what kind of protective measures are best suited for protecting and promoting those languages within their borders that are different from their official state language(s), and are spoken by relatively small groups of people (“minority”) occupying or not a specific territory (“regional”). Since every language has its unique historical and sociolinguistic situation, offering tailor-made provisions is one of the most unique features of the Charter.

Part III comes up with a menu option of protective and planning measures to increase the presence of smaller languages in education, judicial authorities (pleading in court), administrative authorities and public services (getting a birth certificate), media (social media and good old radio), cultural activities (folk festivals and museums), economic and social life (banks, hospitals, and nursing homes). It also offers measures for trans-frontier exchanges when the same language is spoken on both sides of a political border. In light of these options, we’ve asked the Symposium participants the following question: Do you really need the Charter to enact measures in all these domains? If yes, what has been achieved in the last 20 years?

2.    Here is how we did it…
As one of the organizers of the Symposium, I have offered an introduction to the topic and presented the first keynote speaker. (Click here for powerpoint presentation.) In my presentation, I showed a video recorded by Professor Emeritus Douglas Kibbee who talked about inequalities in language and human rights. (Video below.)

video

Our introductory keynote speaker, Mr. Alexey Kozhemyakov, Head of the Charter Secretariat, Council of Europe, Strasbourg, France, then talked in greater detail about the Charter and its implementation. He outlined some of the achievements, such as the revitalization of Cornish in the United Kingdom, Maronite Arabic in Cyprus, and Yiddisch in Sweden, and also stressed some of the concerns with monitoring, such as delay, non-compliance, and budgetary restrictions.

Then, we considered historical minorities in two non-ratifying member states of the Council: Italy and Corsica. In these countries, the Charter’s provisions do not apply but, as hinted on by Professor Kibbee in it video address, its influence is recognizable. Dr. Eda Derhemi (SIP, UIUC) presented the contribution of old media, a community newspaper, to the revitalization Arbëresh, an ethnolect spoken by groups of Albanian-speaking minorities in Italy. Alessia Zulato (French, UIUC) took us to trilingual Aosta Valley in Italy to explain how cultural initiatives can give visibility in the public domain to oral languages such as franco-provençal, spoken at home by numerous speakers whose official and co-official state languages are Italian, French

Professor Alexandra Jaffe’s keynote address highlighted the acceptance of multiple norms in elementary education in Corsican, a Romance language spoken natively on the island of Corsica, France. She presented videos and transcripts of actual exchanges that showed how teachers negotiate successfully between the mixed use of Corsican, French, Italian (as a second language) in the classroom. Her conclusions resonated with the morning session’s overall perception that small, “tailor-made” measures promoting the use of local languages can help increase awareness of the language, but it often has little at stake for the community.

In the afternoon, we turned to Spain, a “chartered” territory for regional or minority language planning and protection. Taking the Basque Country and its flagship minority language, Basque, as her demonstration, Itxaso Rodriguez (SIP, UIUC) addressed the issue of language ideologies and language use. She argued that the attitudes of the upcoming generations that are now speaking Basque natively often have a radical attitude towards the prestige and correctness of standard Basque: while practicing it in most formal settings, they are also questioning its authenticity and legitimacy in everyday life.
Professor Inigo Urrutia the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao offered several analyses of EU-case law on labeling and official language laws. He showed that laws requiring the use of the national language in media broadcasts and food labeling can be seen as barriers to trade and free circulation of goods increasingly advocated by the EU. In his short reply, Professor Jose Ignacio Hualde raised the question of limits to planning and revitalization that effectively stop at trade arrangements and practical constraints that often lead to a compromise.

Professor Kevin Scannell’s video-recorded presentation on the grassroots initiative to translate Facebook’s English-only interface to various languages of lesser use closed the day of this long Symposium. If you would like to read our separate blog entry on this topic, please click here

3. And what was achieved …
… was a lively and open discussion that brought up even more questions that we could possibly answer. What we have learned that the Charter is a catalyst. Its aim and proposals have extended beyond the ratifying member states and succeeded in bringing concrete measures, such as the standardization of nearly-extinct languages and awareness of the existence of many languages. Greater awareness can bring re-evaluation of the value of the language itself, contributing to inter-cultural dialogue. Often times, as we have seen in Italy and in Spain, regional autonomy achieved much of the same the Charter could have brought to the community… In some of these communities, the regional language shows unmistakable signs of vitality in debates on stylistic variation and ideologies.

How could the Charter still contribute to regional or minority language protection and planning?
Alessia Zulato’s willingness to look into the future of trilingual Aosta Valley gave us the following positive closing statement: “The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages could importantly contribute to strengthening the impact of regional activities on the regional territory, as well as inserting these local measures within a supra-regional frame. Cultural projects, for one, could expand and create cooperation among regional minority languages speakers around the EU.”   

Let it be the job of the 30th Anniversary Symposium to evaluate this proposal…

Zsuzsanna Fagyal-Le Mentec is Associate Professor of French at UIUC. She is an EU Center faculty, specializing in the study of the sounds of French, language variation and change in European varieties of French, and language and minorities in Europe. She regularly teaches the EUC-sponsored "Language and Minorities in Europe" course and she is the chief editor of this blog..

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