Linguistic diversity in Europe

Sietske Poepjes has been recently elected as the Chair of the Network to Promote the Linguistic Diversity (NPLD), an European network working in the field of language policy for Constitutional, Regional and Small-State Languages across Europe. The main goal of the NPLD is to raise awareness at a European level on the vital importance of linguistic diversity. She is a regional politician in charge of Culture within the Province of Friesland. In fact, the Frisian is one of the languages that NPLD is promoting.

Sietske Poepjes
Sietske Poepjes – Chair of the Network to Promote the Linguistic Diversity
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Which were the main objectives of this Charter?

The general aim is to protect and promote the regional and minority languages; to normalise the use of those languages in the domains of education, public authorities and administration, as well as in the media, and in the social, cultural and economic life.
In fact, the formal recognition, and the monitoring system with the national consulting boards and the on-the-spot visits of the Committee of Experts have been very positive for the awareness of the respective language communities. First of all, for the strengthening of the relationship between regional and central governments, and secondly for the inclusive approach of the Charter, which is linking the various domains in its ambitions and working together.

Are you satisfied with the implementation of this treaty in the different Members States?

Unfortunately, not all the Member States who signed the Charter have ratified it. The reports of the Committee of Experts often show the gap between the wishes and needs of the language communities and their respective stakeholders; moreover, they show that the actual language policies of the state governments are reluctant to improve their legislation and the application of the signed undertakings in practice. For example, with regard to Frisian in education, already three times the Committee of Experts has recommended the Dutch government to improve the educational policy, with the expression of: “encouraging”, “urging” and “strongly urging”. The monitoring system itself is very well structured with the national reports and the on-the-spot-visits of the Committee of Experts. Nonetheless, the monitoring cycle of three years, and the reports with the recommendations, creates some difficulties and delay regarding the implementation in the member states. However, the Council of Europe is developing a more thematic approach of the monitoring instrument. That might give us some more concrete and achievable results of implementation.

How is the current situation of the CRSS  in the European Union?

There is no simple answer to that question, because there is a huge variety of languages and language communities with their own traditions, goals and achievements. Plus, there is a huge variety of language policies among the EU Member States.  The more the State is centralised, such as France and Greece, the less space will be given for the recognition of regional and minority languages. In a federal State like Germany or Spain, the languages enjoy more freedom and can create better opportunities for the growth and blossoming of the linguistic diversity. Other good examples of a balanced language policy are Finland and Sweden as neighboring countries, and the United Kingdom. Finland and Sweden have a mutual responsibility for their languages as cross-border languages, and they share the responsibility for the Sami languages in the north – together with Norway and Russia, by the way.
Within the United Kingdom the more or less autonomous regions of Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Northern-Ireland, as well as the Isle of Man and the Canal Isles of Wight, Guernsey and Jersey do have their own rules and regulations.

Are the European governments committed to the promotion of all the languages of Europe?

The European Institutions should promote the 24 national languages and not only a few working languages. Plus we can’t forget that we have more than 60 regional languages, as well as more than 175 migrant languages.
Of course, not all languages can be treated at the same level of protection and promotion. However, in my perspective, the EU Programs should be equally accessible for national languages as for minority languages that are recognized in their respective Member States. This could stimulate the EU member states to finally sign and ratify the Charter!

Why is the linguistic diversity so important for the identity of Europe?

The motto of the EU is “Unity in Diversity”, the more than 500 million EU citizens do not consider themselves ‘Europeans’ – as the Americans do – but they first consider themselves citizens of their region or their Nation State. In order to link the citizens to the concept of ‘Europe’ it seems important to me, that they are welcome to bring their own cultural and linguistic background to Europe, as a part and parcel of the European Mosaic.

Different ways of crying
Multilingualism is nowadays a reality and the coexistence of various languages is common-
-place in European societies. Nevertheless, many citizens -and not few governments- look at this fact as a problem. What would you say to them?

First of all, one should make a difference between multilingualism of society as such, and multilingualism -or plurilingualism- of individuals. Without doubt, multilingualism of the individual citizen is an asset, not only for the cognitive and cultural development of the person itself, but also for his social participation and career perspectives. The informal use of regional and migrant languages in shops, health care or sports, is absolutely positive for the success of the conversation. Governments, regional and local authorities should encourage all pupils, students and adults alike to acquire more languages than just their mother-tongue + 2.
On the other hand, multilingualism of public authorities and governmental organization should be the reflection of the wishes and needs of the population in all its varieties, in order to create and maintain a stable society. That does not mean that a government shall translate all documents into all languages spoken on its territory, but that they shall develop a tailor made approach which guarantees the various language communities to be equally recognized as a citizen of that country / region. The menu-system of the Charter can be used as a model for the member states and regional government to fine tune the language policy for that purpose.
For example, in Friesland, the menu-system of the Charter republic authorities (art. 10) has been used to develop a very detailed menu-system for language policy of the municipalities with almost 100 undertakings to choose from. That works very well for the individual municipality but also for the common understanding of the municipalities together with the provincial government.

It is estimated that over 40 million Union citizens regularly speak a regional or minority language that has been handed down from generation. Is there any chance of harmonizing the rules that apply in the different Members States with the aim of promotion the minority languages in an equivalent way?

I am afraid, there is no chance to harmonize the rules that apply in different EU member states by means of European rules. First of all, with regard to culture  and education, the rule and motto of “subsidiarity” is in place. Secondly, any policy regarding linguistic diversity and the protection and promotion of minority languages should aim at a tailor made approach.
An “equivalent” way does not prerequisite a standard-common structured set of rules and measurements. However, there is a common need to learn from each other, to develop common strategies and to join & support each other at the European fora by expressing one voice.

You have been elected as the Chair of the NPLD in June of this year. Which will be the priorities for your mandate?

I will be very much in favor of the right balance of both wings of the work of the NPLD: Advocacy work at European level (EU Commission, Parliament, and the Council of Europe) as well as project work by means of the exchange of best practices in the field of language planning in the various CRSS language communities. Of particular interest are the subjects of Information and Communication Technologies to enhance language learning, promotion and vitality of all languages.

In addition to those priorities, there are two items to be mentioned: (1) the expansion of the NPLD in size and power by attracting of new members to the NPLD; (2) the strengthening of our Academic Group (network of universities) that takes the initiative for new research projects in the field of language planning that might be co-financed from the Erasmus-Plus program, in particular with regard to the development of digital structures and opportunities. Furthermore, with themes as language and economy, visibility of the languages. I very much welcome the initiative by one of our members to organize a Summer School on Linguistic Diversity & Language Planning.