The EU & Minority Languages Promotion

By Roberta Ragucci

The European Union is home to 60 regional or minority languages which are threatened and risk to disappear. Language can constitute more than just a communication tool, as it can be regarded as a bearer of culture and traditions. In such a culturally diverse environment, where the EU can be seen as an engaging multicultural mosaic, is the diversity constituting a key point for our sense of communality? Or is the presence of multiculturalism representing an obstacle for a potential homogeneity?

One of the most varied and endangered linguistic minorities in Europe is the Sami. The Sami is an indigenous people living today in a territory which extends on four countries (Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway), in a region called Lapland. Sami livelihood and economy was mainly based on the reindeer husbandry, coastal fishing, and hunting. Thus, due to their need to follow reindeers, they have never lived in one and only big community, setting up several smaller communities instead. Consequently, their nomadic life led to the development of different Sami languages, at least ten, which cannot be classified simply as dialects of the same language. Nowadays, the Sami language which counts the larger number of speakers is the North Sami, followed by the Lule Sami and South Sami. It belongs to the finno-ugrian linguistic family and it is commonly divided into three branches, depending on the grade of mutual intelligibility they can reach.

Since the establishment of borders in the Scandinavian peninsula and Russia, the Sami population quickly became a minority and encountered all the correlated difficulties as, for instance, the prohibition to speak their own language and the obligation to learn the new majority (“national”) languages. This was a consequence of the development of the agricultural activities, which implied a progressive settlement in the most Northern-most areas where the reindeers used to graze, and the wish to reach a certain homogeneity amongst the territory after the drawing of new borders. Thus the Sami people was considered a threat to the in-borders safety and homogeneity of the now “national” population.

Sapmi Drum
A Sami drum, symbol of this indigeneous population’s centuries-old cultural struggle.

As the role played by the minorities in a state basically depends on domestic laws, Sami people have different rights depending on where they live. In a paper I wrote for the Intensive Programme 2018, I compared how the Sami languages have been developing in terms of protection through domestic and international laws in Sweden and Norway, an EU member state and a non-EU country, in order to show the European Union’s role, if it has any. In terms of domestic law, Sami has been recognized a Swedish national minority in 2000 and is protected by the Language Act of 2009 which encourages its development and maintenance. However, as it appears, the existence of a law does not imply its complete implementation. For instance, Sami schools offer education from grade 1 to grade 6 and function as a separate part of the Swedish compulsory school system. “The responsibility for the Sami school in Sweden lies within a political Sami board of education, which is a appointed by the Sami Parliament”[1]. Kristina Belancic, researcher at the department for language studies and Vaartoe, Center for Sami Research at Umeå University in Sweden, reveals in a comparative analysis of Sami and Swedish National Curricula that “there are still some great gaps in terms of quality and breadth of knowledge”[2], this means that there is an unbalanced distribution of knowledge types and cognitive processes between the Sami and the Swedish National Curricula.

However, language policy is an exclusive competence of the member states and the EU can only support actions aimed at promoting and preserving regional and minority languages of its members. The EU law, in the respect of educational field, is limited and accordingly the member states retain the competence dealing with education in minority languages. “EU action in the field of education is limited to develop the European dimension in education, particularly through the teaching and dissemination of the languages of the member states encouraging students and teachers mobility”[3]. Yet, in this case as well, the EU action is not legally binding but might only indirectly influence its member states in this regard. It is essential to notice the complexity of this case study as, due to the presence of more than ten Sami languages, some of which count less than 500 native speakers, many questions unavoidably arise, such as finding Sami teachers for each one of the existing languages, disposing of financial sources and coming up with a new Swedish national curriculum. The comparison between an EU and non-EU member states led to the evidence that the European Union is not directly instrumental in preserving minority languages amongst its member states. Then, another question which arises is whether there should be any intervention at the EU level, or whether a major involvement in the national laws of its members should be avoided. Notwithstanding, the main question about the diversity as a EU key point for a greater sense of communality lingers and the aspect of language as one of the cultural features should not be underestimated.

[1] Kristina Belancic and Eva Lindgren, “Discourses of Functional Bilingualism in the Sami Curriculum in Sweden” (in International Journal of Bilingual Education and bilingualism, 2017)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Gulara Guliyeva, “Education, Languages and Linguistic Minorities in the EU: Challenges and Perspectives” (European Law Journal, 19:2, 2013, 219-236)

Featured picture credit: Arctic Council.

This article was written as part of a series; it is based on a paper written by the author within the framework of the Euroculture Intensive Programme, held in Krakow in June 2018. To read more about the IP 2018 and its theme “Where is Europe?”, click here.


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