May 29 2006

In the U.S. and Europe, Tensions Between a National and Minority Languages

Published by at May 29, 2006 12:00 am under Multilingualism

After the Senate’s recent vote to make English the “national language” of the United States, an avalanche of accusations accumulated, suggesting much illiberal villainy. The Senate’s enshrinement of English in the immigration bill it approved last week was cautious: the proposed law says the government must ” preserve and enhance the role of English,” but it leaves intact federal laws requiring multilingual materials and services. Yet some critics immediately attacked it as xenophobic, even racist.

But perhaps, to put things in a broader perspective, it may help to step outside the United States’ debates about English and look at a situation that is its precise opposite. A few months ago officials from the European Union scrutinized Germany’s compliance with the 1992 European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, a counterweight to the very idea of official languages. It stresses what it calls “the value of interculturalism and multilingualism.” It demands that treaty participants “promote regional or minority languages,” encourage their use, create political links among their speakers, guarantee access to them in criminal and civil proceedings, and encourage their presence in television and radio. Procedures were established for monitoring compliance with this project.

In March a European Union “committee of experts,” as they are officially called, issued a 168-page report (available at www.coe.int/t/e/legal_affairs) after examining Germany’s compliance. The gist of it is that in Germany “more determined measures are needed to encourage the use of regional or minority languages in economic and social life.” Germany is, for example, asked to “remedy the existing shortage of Lower Sorbian-speaking teachers,” to “develop and implement the educational model for North Frisian proposed by the North Frisian speakers” and “reverse the decline in study and research opportunities for Low German, Sater Frisian and Lower Sorbian.” Germany’s response in a 50-page appendix did little to mitigate the righteous sentiments of the final verdict.

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