memorandum by Mr Kumcuoğlu, rapporteur
1.1 My mandate and
scope of the report
On 14 April 2008, a motion for a recommendation on
strengthening measures to protect and revive highly endangered languages,
presented by Mrs Hurskainen and others (Doc. 11517)
, was referred to the Committee on Culture, Science and
Education for report. I was appointed rapporteur by the committee
in May 2008.
2 The motion clearly defines the issue to be considered: language
diversity is particularly threatened in Europe and there is an urgent
need to intervene rapidly to avoid a situation where many European
languages will become extinct within the next few generations. In
fact, at the present time, many European historical languages are
spoken only by the oldest members of the community and are no longer
transmitted to the next generation. These languages – which are
referred to as “highly endangered” in the present report – cannot survive
without sustained support from public authorities and the immediate
adoption of measures designed to revitalise them.
1.2 Preparation of
3 On 20 May 2009, the Committee on Culture, Science
and Education held an exchange of views with representatives of
UNESCO’s programme on endangered languages and of the Council of
Europe secretariat of the European Charter for Regional or Minority
In the accomplishment of my task as rapporteur, I was assisted
by Mrs Sumru Ozsoy, Professor in the Department of Western Languages
and Literatures, Bogazici University, Istanbul (Turkey), who prepared
a background paper and presented it at the committee meeting on
10 and 11 May 2010 in Istanbul. I thank her for her contribution.
In addition, the present report builds on detailed and valuable
information published online by UNESCONote
and the publication Ethnologue: Languages of the World.Note
My analysis and proposals are also based
on evidence gathered and guidelines delivered by the Committee of
Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages
(“the charter”), which are available on the Council of Europe website.
Dr Stefan Oeter, Chairperson of the Committee of Experts of the
European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (“the committee
of experts of the charter”), was invited to present his views and
provided me with very useful information and comments – for which
I am thankful to him – namely on the positive impact of the charter
and policy measures to recommend to Council of Europe member states
in order to strengthen the protection of highly endangered languages.
Following a decision taken by the committee at its meeting
on 10 and 11 May 2010 in Istanbul, a short questionnaire was sent
to 11 countriesNote
where the existence of highly endangered
languages is reported, but which have not ratified the European
Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The aim was to have
a more complete picture of measures implemented in countries which
are not subject to the monitoring procedure foreseen in the charter.
To date, five delegations (Bulgaria, France, Georgia, “the former
Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and the Russian Federation) have
replied. Looking for additional information on the other targeted countries,
I examined the replies sent by some of themNote
the questionnaire that the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human
Rights sent to national delegations of member states that have not
ratified the charter, within the framework of the preparation of
its report on the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.Note
1.3 Aim of the report
6 The present report is, on the one hand, designed
to raise awareness of the danger faced by many European languages
and stress the need for an unremitting commitment to safeguarding
these languages and avoid irremediable losses in language diversity.
On the other hand, the report considers how to deal with this issue
effectively and points towards action which must be taken without
delay by the Council of Europe bodies and national authorities,
within their respective responsibilities, to preserve and revive
languages which are at risk of extinction.
7 There is no doubt that the ratification and effective implementation
of the charter remains fundamental to reaching this goal: member
states which have not yet done so should be urged to ratify this
convention and be offered the assistance they may require to this
aim. However, the present report does not focus on this issue, which
is being dealt with by the report of the Committee on Legal Affairs
and Human Rights on the charter.
8 The present report is intended to appeal to all the countries
concerned – regardless of whether or not they have already ratified
the charter – for an immediate review of language policies in the
light of standards set in the charter and to encourage, wherever
required, immediate action to enhance the protection and promotion
of highly endangered languages. This is essential to ensure the
effective enjoyment by all persons of their language rights without
discrimination and the preservation of this important part of Europe’s
2 The issue
at stake: serious threats to linguistic diversity
2.1 Negative trends
in linguistic diversity
The historical process of state building was not
dependent on – and in fact virtually disregarded –linguistic factors.
This gave rise to linguistic diversity in individual states all
over the world. Today there are approximately 7 000 living languagesNote
however, differ considerably with respect to the size of the respective
linguistic communities. In fact, according to the statistics found
in Ethnologue: Languages of the World
around 94% of the world’s languages are spoken by about 6% of the
10 Linguistic diversity varies according to regions and countries.
Approximately 2 000 languages (nearly one third of the world total)
are spoken in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Papua New Guinea, with a population
of less than 4 million, there are 830 indigenous linguistic communities.
Indonesia, India, China, Mexico, Brazil and the United States are
examples of countries which have great linguistic diversity.
11 On all continents, the number of languages has been constantly
decreasing over the last few centuries for a number of reasons,
including disease, natural catastrophes, ethnic rivalry and wars.
However, at present, globalisation and urbanisation (which affect
all regions of the world) are the two main reasons, though possibly in
conjunction with other factors, leading to language endangerment.
12 Data collected by UNESCO and included in its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, clearly
show thatlinguistic diversity
is in jeopardy. Some 230 languages have become extinct over the
past fifty years. Even as recently as a few months ago, the international
news agencies reported the passing away of the last speaker of the
Bo language in India.
13 More than 1 000 languages across the world are at present
significantly threatened and it is generally agreed that, if trends
are not reversed, up to 3 000 languages that are today endangered
to different degrees, will probably no longer exist within the next
fifty to one hundred years. Countries with the greatest linguistic diversity
are also those which have the greatest number of endangered languages.
The situation is particularly worrying in Europe, where linguistic
diversity is poorer than in other regions of the world.Note
the last century, as a result of modernisation and rampant globalisation,
the number of languages spoken in Europe has significantly decreased.
In the last fifty years some 20 languages have become extinct (most
of them in the Russian Federation’s Asiatic regions).
15 As an example, in 1992, Ubykh, a north-western Caucasian language,
became extinct when its last speaker died in Balıkesir (Turkey)
at the age of 84. Ubykh was a language with an extremely complex phonological
system. Its last speaker attempted to transmit the history and the
culture of the Ubykh through the many Nart sagas (legends of giants
and heroes) he took every opportunity to recite. The epics of the
Ubykh now live only in the recordings made by linguists.
Today, many European languages are endangered.Note
Around 20 historical communities have
less than 100 speakers. For example, speakers of Ume Sami and Pite
Sami (Sweden) and of Ter Sami (Russian Federation) number only 10
in each of these communities. Similarly, the number of Karaim speakers
(another highly endangered language, which has already become extinct
in Crimea) is estimated to be (according to 2001 records) less than
10 in western Ukraine and 50 in Lithuania.
2.2 Language vitality,
level of endangerment and highly endangered languages
According to the 2003 UNESCO report “Language vitality
and endangerment”, there are six major factors which may be used
to assess language vitality. These are:
- intergenerational language transmission;
- absolute number of speakers;
- proportion of speakers within the total population of
the group concerned;
- trends in existing language domains;
- response to new domains and media;
- materials for language education and literacy.
Three additional key factors are also considered in the same
report which impact on language vitality:
- governmental and institutional attitudes and policies,
including official status and use;
- community members’ attitudes towards their own language;
- amount and quality of documentation (including audio and
19 The assessment of language vitality (and level of endangerment)
must take account of a combination of these factors and not look
at them in isolation, though it is commonly accepted that the viability
of a language is determined primarily by intergenerational transmission,
as the vitality of a language clearly lies in the youngest generation.
20 Language endangerment arises from situations where a language
is no longer (or no longer perceived as) functional within the community
in which it served as the major means of communication for generations. The
language instead yields its status to the linguistic system of another
(dominant) group and it is no longer transmitted to the next generation.
21 The intergenerational transmission factor is, in practice,
closely interconnected with other factors and in particular with
the number of speakers. The significance and impact of this should
not be overlooked: it is evident that the smaller the absolute number
of speakers, the more the risk for a language to become extinct increases,
and the more difficult it becomes to reverse the tendencies. However,
a negative trend in intergenerational transmission is in itself
a critical alarm signal and, whatever the initial number of people speaking
the language, this will decrease dramatically with each new generation.
UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages
defines (in addition to “safe” and “extinct”)
four levels of endangerment based on intergenerational language
- vulnerable (most
children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain
areas, and namely to family life at home);
- definitely endangered (children no longer learn the language
as the mother tongue at home);
- severely endangered (the language is spoken by grandparents
and older generations; parents may understand but do not speak it
to children or amongst themselves);
- critically endangered (the youngest speakers are grandparents,
who speak the language partially and infrequently).
23 The present report is intended to focus only on the most threatening
situations faced by historical languages traditionally used in European
countries. Based on the above-mentioned factors, it is possible
to say that a language (and its capacity to perpetuate itself) is
exposed to extreme levels of risk when it is spoken only by a limited
number of people who mostly belong to the oldest (grandparent/great-grandparent)
generation. In such cases, the parents have ceased to use it and
no longer teach it to their children, meaning that the language
cannot replace itself demographically.
When an historical language is no longer transmitted to the
next generation, its extinction may only be a matter of years and
there is no possibility of recovery if the language in question
is not strongly protected and supported by the national authorities.
This is what will be referred to as a highly endangered language.Note
In general, given the inter-related and self-reinforcing dynamics
produced by different risk factors, it is also the case that highly
endangered languages do not benefit from a presence in the media
and on the Internet, and they are used only in a few social domains
(namely at home or on traditional ceremonial occasions). These domains
are typically unrelated to higher social status (prestige, power)
even within their own ethno-cultural community, which is a reflection
of the relative powerlessness of the majority of their users and
maybe also of the fact that community members have lost interest
in supporting their mother tongue.NoteNote
2.3 The need to revive
highly endangered languages
26 In the history of humanity, languages have always
declined and become extinct. This is not a new phenomenon. However,
the pace of this process has increased tremendously over the last
few centuries and is pervasive across the world. There were more
than 1 100 Indian languages in Brazil in the 16th century and there
are now fewer than 200. The scale of decline is similar in North
America and in Australia.
There is an evident link between this trend and the rise of
global languages. It was observed that “minority languages and cultures
have been crushed when they find themselves in the path of the ‘steamroller’ of
Of course, English comes
to mind immediately, but it is worth noting that it is not alone. Other
dominant languages played the same role against historical languages
in different regions of the world: Spanish and Portuguese in South
America are an example, but also Russian, Chinese and Arabic have threatened
and extinguished several languages in their respective areas of
One might wonder if it really matters. What is the significance
of linguistic diversity and why encourage member states to take
precautionary steps to safeguard languages that are in danger? The
starting point in answering these questions is to understand that
“every language is a unique vision of the world”. “The world is a
mosaic of visions, and each language captures something of the way
a certain human community has come to perceive the world.”Note
29 Languages are not only a principal means of communication
but also the tool to express thoughts, ideas, memories, emotions
and to transmit cultural and social knowledge. Each community develops
its own system of thinking, philosophy and understanding of the
world in which it lives. The community’s language mirrors this exclusive
world view and is a distinctive expression of the corresponding
culture. For this reason language is very closely related to the
individual and collective cultural identity of its speakers, who
may equate the loss of their language with a loss of their original
ethnic and cultural identity.
30 Linguistic communities reflect their own culture, values and
customs, and pass them on to the younger generations, predominantly
through language. As an example, most of the poems in the Finnish
national epic, the Kalevala, are
based on material collected from rune singers in villages in the
wilderness of northern Karelia. The lexical wealth of a language
offers a categorisation of the world unique to the members of the
linguistic community. For example, Eskimo-Aleut languages have several
ways of expressing different forms of condensation in the winter.
31 Thus, languages are the means of expression of the intangible
cultural heritage of humanity and linguistic diversity constitutes
one of the most important aspects of cultural diversity. The loss
of a language means the unredeemable loss of a unique historical,
social, cultural and ecological knowledge, of an inimitable human
experience and view of the world.
3 The policy response:
protect, and support recovery of, highly endangered languages
3.1 Reversing language
32 It has already been mentioned that factors threatening
language vitality are diverse. Dramatic events, such as diseases,
natural catastrophes or conflicts may decimate a community. Ethnic
rivalry, persecutions and military domination may lead to the forceful
splitting up and transplantation of one community into communities
using other languages. Globalisation and urbanisation lead to a
similar result, though for different reasons: they provoke the displacement
of members of small communities (namely from rural to metropolitan areas)
and oblige them to confront more powerful and bigger communities,
their “aggressive” cultures and dominant languages.
33 As a matter of fact, language endangerment is also a question
of contacts and, eventually, of competition between different linguistic
groups. Today many linguistic groups are part of larger communities
where the overwhelming majority speaks a different language which
has (contrary to their own) an official status. Typically, the mastery
of the official language provides social and economic advantages
to the members of the weakest community while, in contrast, historical
and other minority languages are marginalised in social and economic
34 This marginalisation process is spurred on when government
policies impose the use of the official language in education, official
business and the media; the result is also the same when government
policies promote national languages disregarding the others. Of
course, the national language has an important role to play in ensuring
national cohesion and integration, and has strong significance as
a marker of identity and membership of the overall “national community”.
There is nothing wrong in promoting it. However, the particular role
of state languages and their overwhelming presence in the public
sphere and in the mass media has significant impact on other languages
and may jeopardise their vitality. This has to be carefully considered.
35 For social integration, but also for competitive reasons,
most European countries and their citizens tend to privilege not
only the use of the national official language, but also the mastery
of international or important neighbouring languages. Thus, as a
consequence of external social, economic and/or cultural pressure
(or, even worse, subjugation) the languages of the smaller communities
lose value within the respective societies.
36 Eventually, such external endangerment factors also bring
about a negative feeling in people belonging to the weakest communities
and the traditional languages are progressively abandoned by the
new generations. They not only choose to learn the dominant (and
socially more prestigious) language(s) – to overcome discrimination
and with the hope of better integration and greater professional
opportunities – but also come to believe that their language is
not worth retaining. When a language is no longer being learned
as the mother tongue by children, it is indeed doomed for extinction.
This analysis clearly points to two converging directions
which should be followed to reverse language shift:
- transform negative governmental
and institutional attitudes and develop proactive supportive policies towards
endangered, and in particular highly endangered, languages;
- counteract community members’ sense of inferiority and
relinquishing attitudes, encouraging a feeling of pride in their
own language, enhancing its social status and raising awareness
of the importance of using (also) their own language to express
thoughts, transmit knowledge and memories and carry out intellectual
and creative activities.
38 Policy measures intended to give these results are complementary
and mutually reinforcing: they must go hand in hand. As an example,
it is clear that official recognition of the importance of an endangered language
will encourage the community concerned not to abandon it, but would
have little effect without sustained public support for education
in this language.
3.2 The impact of the
European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages
Since 1992, Council of Europe member states have
confirmed their commitment to the protection of historical languages
by adopting the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
To date, 25 member statesNote
the Council of Europe have ratified this unique convention and eight
signed but not ratified it.
40 The preamble of the charter highlights the value of interculturalism
and multilingualism, and emphasises that the protection of languages
at risk contributes to the maintenance and development of Europe’s
cultural wealth and traditions, as well as to the building of a
Europe based on the principles of democracy and cultural diversity.
As stated at the end of the fifth (and latest) biennial report by
the Secretary General to the Parliamentary Assembly about the application
of the charter: “The application of the Charter is organised on the
basis of a friendly and reasonable coexistence of official languages
and regional or minority languages. Both are perceived as reinforcing
one another in a context of multilingualism and cultural pluralism,
and not as being in opposition or competition. This approach wants
people to be sufficiently confident of their own identity to take
a positive attitude towards other cultural identities.”
41 The system established by the charter has been influential
in provoking positive developments. For some languages (such as
Low German in Germany, Scots in the United Kingdom, Limburgish in
the Netherlands or Cypriot Maronite Arabic in Cyprus) the ratification
instrument was the first official recognition of their language
status in their respective countries. Following its ratification,
the charter’s implementation – which is monitored by its committee
of experts and supported by the valuable work of this body – has contributed
to raising awareness and encouraged national policies seeking to
revitalise endangered languages in countries parties to this convention.
As an example, the ratification in favour of Yiddish (an archaic
language which has lost its living character in many European countries)
has had a positive effect in the Netherlands, where both the authorities
and the speakers realised its cultural value and potential for promotion.
42 The monitoring reports show that concrete measures have been
taken and the framework for the protection of regional or minority
languages has improved in most states parties. The charter foresees
an ongoing process. Member states can always adopt more stringent
obligations, as is provided for in Article 3, paragraph 2, of the
charter, including in the sense that a language initially not taken
into consideration may be recognised by a member state after recommendations
from the committee of experts and dialogue between the speakers
and the authorities. Positive results have been obtained, for example
in the case of the Karelian language in Finland, the Kven language
in Norway or the Cypriot Maronite Arabic language in Cyprus.
On a more general level, two important achievements among
others should be highlighted:
growing understanding within national authorities of the value of
regional and minority languages as an integral part of their national
culture and history;
- the acceptance by regional or minority language speakers
that their language and culture should be a source of pride.
short, the charter’s implementation encourages the authorities and
the speakers to work together (a situation that is observed more
and more often in the states parties to the charter) and, in this
context, the chances for survival and positive development are more
promising even for languages in a difficult position.
The system has, however, its limits.
- First, states parties are responsible for deciding whether
a form of expression used by a particular group constitutes a regional
or minority language within the meaning of the charter.
- Second, to accommodate the diversity of situations and
features of various European regional or minority languages, the
charter is designed in a flexible manner: all provisions in its
Part II apply in their entirety to all regional or minority languages
on the territory of a state party, but these core provisions are
general and allow the parties a broad measure of discretion as regards
both interpretation and application. The provisions of Part III
are intended to translate these general principles into precise
rules, but they are binding only on those contracting parties that
undertake to apply them (and they are not required to accept them
- Finally, the committee of experts’ recommendations and
suggestions are not binding; they are not always followed by timely
and adequate responses and practical implementation lags behind.
45 Moreover, 22 Council of Europe member states have not yet
ratified the charter and there are no signs that they will do so
in the near future. With regard to these countries, in some of them
the existence of (highly) endangered languages is not reported.
In the others, the non-ratification of the charter does not automatically imply
a lack of attention to the situation of languages traditionally
used in their territories which are, or may become, endangered.
Information provided by some of these countries shows that
they do not oppose the use of minority or regional languages and
that their legislation may already enshrine good principles and
standards for the protection of minority or regional languages spoken
in their territories, although this legislation does not necessarily
cover all the endangered languages.NoteNote
in these countries, efforts are also made to monitor the situation
of endangered languages, collect relevant material and support academic
studies and targeted publications.NoteNoteNoteNoteNote
3.3 The urgency of
reinforced action at European and national levels
47 Despite the charter’s valuable positive impact (and,
more generally, despite various measures already enforced by European
countries) too many European languages are still highly endangered
and in need of better protection: further action is needed in order
to guarantee linguistic and cultural diversity in Europe. Lack of
immediate response to the problem could lead to the extinction of
languages in regions where they have been traditionally used for
centuries. It is urgent to adopt more ambitious policies at national
level and reinforce action at European level to revive all highly
48 Coherent policies in this direction should build on refined
analysis concerning the target groups and the extent of problems
they encounter, which in turn requires the availability of reliable
data on the highly endangered languages and their communities.
49 There is also a need for formal political recognition of all
languages at risk and for awareness-raising campaigns targeting
the communities concerned and the public at large, to enhance the
social status of highly endangered languages and explain to people
why each language is a unique cultural treasure which must be safeguarded.
National and local media have a crucial role to play in this
respect. The Assembly has on various occasions stressed that ensuring
access to the mass media (particularly television programmes) in
the mother tongue would be extremely beneficial for languages at
the presence of highly endangered languages in the mass media should
be fostered; Internet offers a very high potential which is probably untapped.
Finally, action must be taken to collect and preserve a whole
range of material (literature, publications, sound and video records,
etc.) on highly endangered languagesNote
and make them
available. Here too, new information technologies could be helpful.
52 The cost of national policies aimed at supporting endangered
languages is probably a stumbling block, even more so in periods
such as the present one, where one might easily be tempted to say
that there are other demands and priorities. It would be a mistake
to claim that financing for programmes to halt language shift is not
a problem. However, doing nothing is just not acceptable. Today,
there is consensus on the need to preserve the environment and biodiversity;
it must equally be recognised that preservation of cultural diversity and
heritage, including languages, is not a luxury, but a necessity.
53 Acting only in isolation, Council of Europe member states
may find it too difficult to adopt and implement the measures required
to revive languages at risk within their territories. For this reason,
it is important to strengthen action at European level.
54 To this end, the knowledge and expertise of the committee
of experts of the charter (and of its secretariat) are real assets
which could be offered to all member states. As an example, the
committee of experts could be entrusted to prepare stock-taking
thematic reports to identify best practice and develop concrete
guidelines on key issues to help effective policy design and implementation.
This work could lead to the preparation of a recommendation of the
Committee of Ministers to member states including these guidelines.
In addition, the European Centre for Modern Languages in Graz
could play a central role in co-ordinating work to save endangered
languages. The centre is already developing projects of direct interest
in the teaching and learning of endangered languages.Note
It could be strengthened to further
develop its action in this field and provide support to networking
and the development of targeted initiatives.
56 Highly endangered languages are an invaluable part
of Europe’s cultural heritage and linguistic diversity is a fundamental
element of European cultural diversity which must be preserved and
promoted. Protecting and reviving highly endangered languages is
therefore a need to which the Council of Europe and its member states
should respond. Taking effective action is a matter of political
will, but also of effective policy design and timely policy implementation.
More commitment is needed, but also better use should be made of
available resources, and these resources should perhaps be increased.
57 All member states concerned should streamline their policies
towards the support of linguistic diversity and the revival of highly
endangered languages, so as to ensure the enjoyment of language
rights without discrimination. These policies should be proactive,
inclusive and innovative, and they should be accompanied by targeted
58 In implementing their policy to revive highly endangered languages,
member states should make full use of opportunities offered by the
media and new information technologies. They should also be capable
of facilitating networking, joint action and partnerships (including
between public and private institutions) in the development of targeted
cultural activities and initiatives such as stage performances,
creative writing, publications, summer schools and short-term educational
and sports programmes.
59 The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers should give the
intergovernmental sector the means to support the design and implementation
of member states’ policies in this field. In addition to what the
committee of experts of the charter is already doing, it seems necessary
to develop thematic guidelines building on best practices and to
reinforce the ability of the European Centre for Modern Languages
in Graz to deliver programmes in support of historical languages