18th Plenary Session of the Congress

Strasbourg, 18 March 2010

Speech by Sigve GRAMSTAD, Vice-Chair of the Expert Committee of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

Chamber of Regions

Minority Languages: an asset for regional development


Let me first thank you for the invitation to come and talk about minority languages. The Congress was one of the key players in the creation of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and you have always continued your interest in and support for this important work.

As we know, the aim of the Charter is to protect and promote regional or minority languages in Europe. In a wider context, the Charter contributes to “the building of a Europe based on the principles of democracy and cultural diversity within the framework of national sovereignty and territorial integrity”, to quote from the Preamble of the Charter.

The Charter was designed to deal with the very diverse language situations in Europe. There are countries with a high number of regional or minority languages and countries with no such languages, there are languages with many users and languages with a low number of users, there are languages that are only used in one area in one country and languages that are found in many countries.

Likewise, the Charter has to deal with a great variety of political and administrative institutions: confederate and federal states, devolved governments and autonomous communities, and of course counties and municipalities in a variety of sizes and numbers, and with varying degrees of self-government.

I believe it is fair to say that the Charter has passed these tests. The more than 10 years of monitoring work in the States Parties to the Charter has shown that the Charter has proven to be a workable tool for the protection and promotion of regional or minority languages throughout Europe.

If I may start with some general observations:

We have seen a general increase in permanent contacts between authorities and the users of regional or minority languages, both prior to ratification and afterwards. We have seen a large number of amendments in legislation for the benefit of these languages, new administrative structures and new institutions with the aim to promote language development.

We have observed the gradual emergence of a permanent environment of intercultural dialogue, a growing understanding within the authorities of the value of regional or minority languages as an integral part of national culture and history, and an often newfound acceptance by regional or minority language users that their language and culture is something to be proud of.

The monitoring consists of examination of national reports, meetings during on-the-spot visits and written contributions. So far, the Committee of Experts has examined 53 national reports. We have had more than 300 meetings with Government bodies, almost 600 meetings with language organisations, around 670 meetings with independent experts, schools, courts and other institutions, and more than 440 meetings with local and regional authorities. Even though we never get the complete picture, the work has provided a fair amount of knowledge and insight into effects of the legal, administrative and other measures taken in the States Parties to the Charter to protect and promote the regional or minority languages.

I have been asked to comment on minority languages as an asset for regional development. Let me at the outset point out three modifying factors: Firstly, in some areas it is difficult to measure development, since it may be of a long-term nature and difficult to measure in the short term, in other cases conflicting evidence is brought before the Committee (for example, the authorities consider the development to be outstanding while the language NGOs consider it to be just a small step). Secondly, the monitoring is very focused on the undertakings in the Charter that apply to the country in question, and it is not within the mandate of the Committee to produce the type of broad overview of effects that the title of my intervention points to. Finally, the Committee of Experts has not dealt with this issue and consequently I can not speak on behalf of the Expert Committee. The views I put forward are therefore my own, although I as usual have received valuable support from the Charter Secretariat.

A general assumption, which is difficult to measure, is that when a person’s minority language and culture is accepted by the majority, it leads to a more active involvement in society and in democratic processes. This is not a development that is measured in the monitoring of the Charter, so I have no evidence to bring, other than the impression we get through the monitoring work. It is a development that you are much better placed to investigate than we are.

What we have observed, is that states party to the Charter have intensified their efforts to protect and promote their regional or minority languages in a number of ways. Let me mention some:

The list of ways in which a regional or minority language can be an asset to regional development is not complete. It is also important to mention that such positive contributions to regional development is to a certain extent dependent on initiatives and hard work on behalf of local and regional authorities in cooperation with others, and the users of the languages are important partners. Protection and promotion of regional or minority languages is a goal, but it may also be a means to promote regional development. Thereby two commendable tasks can be performed at the same time.

The Charter covers most parts of public life, and contains both general obligations in Part II and specific undertakings in Part III. It is important to underline that protection and promotion of regional or minority languages is based on a state’s own policy and legislation. Joining the Charter further signifies the country’s commitment with regard to its own regional or minority languages. That means working for a positive development of the languages and the culture they reflect, which again have positive consequences for the areas where the languages are used. However, it is important to also look beyond the concrete positive possibilities for the regions. We see that a European standard for national policies with regard to regional or minority languages is gradually emerging. Today 24 countries have ratified the Charter, and this standard will become firmer when more countries join. A strong European policy and standard to protect and promote regional or minority languages will have positive effects for all these languages, and for the regions where they are used. So my final encouragement, especially for you who live in states outside the Charter, is to work for your country to ratify.