The European Roadmap for Linguistic Diversity, drafted by the Network for Promotion of Linguistic Diversity, is set to be launched on the 16th October 2015, with its implementation beginning in 2016 and running through to 2019. The Roadmap builds upon the controversial legacy of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
Many regional languages of Western Europe today display symptoms of an endangered language – a highly disproportionate concentration of older age groups among speakers. According to the UNESCO Atlas of World Languages in Danger, Europe is home to over a hundred endangered languages, with 33 ‘close to dying out’. The European Parliament passed a resolution recognising the seriousness of this problem. To this end the resolution recommended the setting up of a specific fund for preservation of endangered languages and including provisions to this effect in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (‘Charter’). Based on the recommendations of the resolution, the draft of the Roadmap was presented in the European Parliament in Brussels on 5th February, 2015.
The Roadmap includes four major lines of action. Firstly, that the EU adopt a ‘holistic multilingualism policy’ which includes granting the highest possible degree of recognition to the languages of Europe. Secondly, that the EU promote the use of regional or minority languages in socio-economic activities and in the private sector, and promote languages for international and regional mobility. Thirdly, it calls for the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in the promotion and vitality of all languages. Fourthly, the provision of support for the ‘most vulnerable languages of Europe’ by furthering the impact of the Charter, and including language rights within the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages remains the only regional instrument in Europe dealing directly with positive linguistic rights and language preservation or revitalisation. The Charter is also seen as the legal bedrock for the Roadmap, which is presented as a ‘toolkit’ to supplement the provisions of the Charter in collaboration with the Council of Europe. One of the goals of the Roadmap is to garner greater support and ratification for the Charter (France, for example, has never ratified).
While the Charter was historically unprecedented in placing express obligations on states for holistic protection of minority linguistic groups, it remains arbitrary and ambiguous in how it identifies intended beneficiaries. The definitions clause of the Charter (Article 1) models a two-tier hierarchy for application of its provisions. ‘Regional or minority languages’ – spoken in a well-defined area – are entitled to proactive measures of support (say, establishing departments in universities for their study) while ‘non territorial’ languages – minority languages that are not concentrated in any specific region – are generally accorded only negative rights. This myopic exclusion of non-territorial languages from Part 3, ‘Measures to promote the use of regional or minority languages in public life’, (which arguably encapsulates the bare-minimum required to revitalise moribund languages) means that some languages like Romani, Yiddish, and Ladino are not to be extended positive support anywhere.
The Roadmap hopefully comes as a conclusion to a series of resolutions and instruments on linguistic rights in Europe – somewhat deficient at best and largely ineffective at worst – starting with the 1983 Arfé Resolution, through the 1992 European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, and the 2008 European Resolution on Multilingualism. The Roadmap fills a legal vacuum in Europe as regards language preservation and revitalisation, and comes at a crucial hour, with almost unprecedented rates of language extinction across Europe. However, basing ‘support for the most vulnerable languages of Europe’ in the much-criticised Charter comes across as counterproductive. It is hoped that the Roadmap will not descend into largely symbolic relevance on account of this oversight, as many say the Charter already has.