The Widely-Cherished Myths of Language Equality and Language Diversity in Europe

This month we published Towards Openly Multilingual Policies and Practices by Johanna Laakso, Anneli Sarhimaa, Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark and Reetta Toivanen. The book explores language policy and use of minority languages in Europe. In this post, the authors discuss the many misconceptions about language diversity in Europe.

Europeans know languages. Being highly educated means speaking many languages, being a well-integrated immigrant means having a good command of the national language. Being a good member of an ethnic minority means mastering both the state language and the ‘ethnic’ language – which, of course, is never subject to discrimination in a democratic European state. On the contrary, lots of taxpayers’ money goes to supporting it.

In brief, Europeans have firm and clear opinions about languages, language learning and language use, about which languages should be promoted, supported, taught, used, or tolerated and in what context. That’s why, from time to time, these issues provoke emotional and heated debates.

Often, the debates reveal that Europeans also firmly believe in linguistic fairness established by the law. It’s true that most European countries have language laws or general legislation concerning the use and promotion of the national language and the protection of minority languages, or at least their non-discrimination. There are even attempts to create general European language policies, which try to implement the Council of Europe’s treaties protecting minorities, their languages and cultures. However, there are also several questions which are seldom asked in the debates. How accepted and empowered do people speaking minority languages feel in Europe? How successful is language-related legislation, after all? How well-informed are citizens and decision-makers about the law and how justified are their firm opinions on language issues?

In brief: Do we really know enough about how well the widely-praised and even legally-established commitments to minorities’ linguistic rights are fulfilled in Europe today?

Picture the following examples – all authentic, by the way:

  • A is a hospital patient with Alzheimer’s disease at an advanced stage who no longer understands what the doctors and nurses are saying. He reacts with nervousness and speaks back to the staff in a language nobody at the hospital understands. It turns out that the hospital staff is not even aware that A’s mother tongue is spoken in their country and that it is a distinct language which is not intelligible to the speakers of the majority language. This is what recurrently happens, for example, to speakers of Karelian in today’s Finland and Finns in today’s Sweden.
  • B is a healthy and lively child, who at the age of five could already read and write fluently in her language. When she is six-and-a-half, her parents take her to a paediatrician for a standard school maturity test. The family comes home with a recommendation to take B to a neurologist because of her low test scores: according to the paediatrician, “B didn’t even seem to understand the questions we asked her”. Things like this happen to members of numerous minorities and migrant groups in Europe all the time.
  • C and D, a young couple, wish to transmit their heritage language to their child. However, their own parents have always spoken the majority language to them: C and D have only learnt their heritage language in childhood contacts with their grandparents. Speaking the heritage language to their own child feels ‘somehow artificial’, it feels ‘like a joke’. And even when relatives and friends praise and enthusiastically support the young family’s decision, nobody can tell them what they should do to make parenting in the heritage language ‘feel right’ and they get no support in the local daycare. This we have heard from Karelian-speaking parents in Finland and Meänkieli-speaking parents in Sweden.
  • During a coffee break, E receives a phone call from her mother. She talks in a low voice in order not to disturb her colleagues. However, it is not the tone that disturbs – her colleagues tell her that speaking a language which the others don’t understand is discriminatory and offensive and is therefore forbidden at all premises of the workplace. Such regulations have been reported, for instance, by Finnish speakers in Sweden and by Hungarian speakers in Austria.
  • F teaches extracurricular heritage language classes in a European city. His pupils come from different schools and backgrounds, and some of them don’t speak the heritage language at home on a regular basis and are not very confident language users. F cannot find really suitable teaching materials for his classes – all available textbooks have been created either for native speakers in a traditional speaker community or for foreign language learners. Although F is a trained teacher, during his education he was never prepared for or confronted with the special needs of a heritage-language learner. This is what teachers of innumerable minority and migrant languages struggle with daily everywhere in Europe.

As the examples above reveal, the reality of how Europeans use and experience their possibilities to use minority languages is much more complicated than the smooth and glossy surface of European language policies and the numerous measures to support language teaching and learning, the proclaimed non-discrimination and the copious lip service paid to ‘multilingualism’ and ‘diversity’ let us believe.

Despite all existing research, the multilingual reality is still not widely known, especially as it concerns the multilingualism of Eastern European and non-Indo-European-speaking minorities or migrant groups. Most notably, laws and policies do not cover all the dimensions of the real, multilingual world and citizens are surprisingly poorly-informed even of the existing laws and institutional arrangements.

Towards Openly Multilingual Policies and PracticesReporting and analysing the results of a large-scale European research project, our new book, Towards Openly Multilingual Policies and Practices, dives under the glossy surface. As the project investigated the forms and prerequisites of multilingualism among twelve very different language-based communities from the Barents Sea coast to the Mediterranean area, the book offers insights into a wide variety of geographical and socio-historical contexts and will, hopefully, make you re-evaluate your own beliefs about the European myth of linguistic equality and fairness.

We invite you to read the book and follow our quest to create a tool for assessing the maintenance of a minority language by way of its speakers’ personal experiences!

Johanna Laakso, Anneli Sarhimaa, Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark and Reetta Toivanen

For further information about this book please see our website.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s