Current challenges for minority languages in today’s diverse societies

On the 9th of November, in cooperation with the Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity, we hosted the event “The current challenges for minority languages in today’s complex societies” to emphasize the importance of multilingualism and language learning as motors for social cohesion and peaceful coexistence.

A question of political will?

While multilingualism is a key European value and a crucial component of economic growth and social cohesion, the lack of policy and political discussion on minority languages in culturally diverse societies remains a barrier to full equality. With 203 national minorities or linguistic groups, and another 50 unique minority languages like Cornish, Romani, Ladin, Gagauz, Kashubian and Sami, what more can be done to embrace cultural diversity in Europe through public policy?

Michael Teutsch, from the European Commission (DG Education, Culture, Youth and Sports) argued that the EU plays a supportive function through programs like Erasmus+, which addresses education and vocational training for Europe’s youth. Speakers agreed that while it is fundamental to speak English in today’s Europe, it is no longer enough. It is vital for Europe’s younger generations to adopt other languages, including minority languages, from an earlier age.

Languages as engines for economic growth

Experts agree that minorities should demonstrate their capacities as protagonists in the economic field, while also recognizing that languages are more than just vehicles of economic success; they relate to heritage, cultural practices, identity, and ways of seeing the world.

To bring this argument to life, Estíbaliz Alkorta from the Government of the Basque Country demonstrated how the Basque language provides complementary value to cultural production, stimulates economic activity and generates employment, provides new cultural expressions and increases the demand for cultural consumption.

On an individual level, Welsh speakers, for example, obtain a greater number of qualifications than non-Welsh speakers and enjoy greater levels of employment. They also have slightly higher average incomes. Despite limited data, Dafydd Trystan concluded his presentation with the idea that the so-called ‘Welsh pound’ is valuable even in economic terms, at least for individuals.

Summary of our event with NPLD on “Current challenges for minority languages in today’s diverse societies” event from Coppieters Foundation on Vimeo.

Combating stigma around migrant languages

In today’s changing Europe, language planning also requires addressing migration and in-migration with the goal of uprooting xenophobia and nativism. As Cor van der Meer noted, in the past regional minority languages have had less contact with migrant languages, but this is quickly changing. New policies are needed to create more inclusive education.

While ‘old’ languages still carry some prestige and status as Europe’s traditional minority languages, ‘new’ migrant languages are increasingly stigmatized. Many experts believe that the key is to shift perspectives and define new linguistic realities as an asset rather than a problem.

Fostering mutual respect through inclusive language education

The key question put forward to the speakers was: can innovative language education help transform beliefs that migrant languages are a threat to minority languages? Indeed, experts present at the event showed through numerous case studies that schools which embrace translanguaging (i.e. the use of the learner’s full language repertoire in teaching and learning) have a positive effect on learning.

So, how can teachers deal with new realities of children from different linguistic backgrounds? How can teachers integrate language learning without speaking the languages in question? The answer was simple: include all languages into the learning process.

Pilot projects, like the one carried out in 80 schools in Friesland where Friesian, Dutch and English are subjects and mediums of instructions, researchers observed that the pupils had similar or better results in all 3 languages than the control group. In addition, children who are able to learn their mother tongues in school with other pupils (i.e. learning to count in Polish or learning to say the days of the week in Arabic), gain more awareness of language diversity, and this in turn fosters mutual respect among students.

However, as Catrin Wyn Edwards pointed out, the UK-wide political context impeded the Welsh government’s ability to regulate and execute a coherent language policy. When state authorities fail to see languages like Welsh as a tool of integration in a multi-ethnic and multicultural Wales, the value of devolution of competences in education becomes clear.