The challenging relationship between transmission of cultures and transmission of languages

The challenging relationship between transmission of cultures and transmission of languages



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Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak about the role and responsibility of regional and local authorities towards the protection and promotion of regional or minority languages and cultures at this important conference.

Just in case you struggle with my English pronunciation: I can assure you, it is not a new regional minority language! I am Belgian and my mother tongue is German. I am sure we will hear more about minority languages as a cultural asset for regions and for cultural diversity today. And I am perfectly aware of the fact that holding my speech in English might not be the perfect illustration of it…

When we speak about minority languages, it is important to start with a common definition. The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages from 1992 proposes the following definition: “regional or minority languages” are languages that are traditionally used within a given territory of a state by nationals of that state who form a group numerically smaller than the rest of the state’s population; and different from the official languages of that State; it does neither include dialects to the official languages of the State, nor the languages of migrants.

Beside this definition, one can also differentiate between a “lesser-used language” and a language shared by large groups of speakers but spoken by a minority of people in a specific country or region. I would like to take my own region, the German-Speaking Community of Belgium, as an example for this last category.

The German speaking Community is the smallest politically independent entity – a small state – within the Belgian federal system. Its territory is about 854 square kilometers small and it is composed of nine municipalities. The official administrative, school and court language is German for about 74.000 inhabitants. The French-speaking inhabitants living there are subject to special language rights called “facilities” which means for example that they get administrative documents in French.

In this context, we should also ask the question “what is a minority?” Especially in Belgium, this question is not easy to answer – although it is quite clear for the German-Speaking Community (representing 0.7 percent of the Belgian population). But in our country, you also have the French-speaking Belgians – who are now a minority comparing to the Flemish Belgians but who often still seem to feel like being the majority. And then you have the Dutch-speaking Belgians who represent the majority of the Belgian population. However, when analyzing their behaviour, you might get the impression that they still react as minorities use to do. You see, Belgium is indeed quite a complicated case regarding minorities…

Besides the importance of protecting and preserving regional and minority languages, there is another important aspect, I would like to stress today: the strong link between regional development and minority languages. The Cultural Committee of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe also deals with that topic. Together with my Russian co-raporteur from Tartarstan, I am working on a report on “Minority languages as asset for regional development”. We were very delighted that our expert, Prof. Christoph Pan, highly contributed to the rapport.

Minority languages depend on regional development, but also represent a cultural asset, which can be a strategic tool for regional development. This interdependency implies that regions have to create an appropriate environment for minority languages.

This assumption brings us to an important question: what can regions do for the protection and promotion of minority or regional languages? Minority languages without speakers are dead languages: languages live by being spoken. Therefore, the use of a language in education and administration is necessary for their development and status.  If minority languages cannot qualify for official status at the national level because of the small number of speakers, then sometimes they can be given official status at the local or regional level. A condition for such a status is that minority languages are taught and learned. Regions can ensure both official language status, and the teaching of the language.

Speaking from the perspective of a regional politician, I am also very keen on finding out how regional or minority languages contribute to the development of a region! Let me stress five points to illustrate my thoughts:
• First: Linguistic minorities are an asset for the economic and cultural development of a region. They represent an enormous potential that is often neglected. When this potential is properly used, it can stimulate cultural and economic activities and make a strong contribution to the prosperity of the region.
• Second: Most speakers of regional and minority languages are multilingual.  Multilingual speakers have better career opportunities – that is positive but on the other hand, their greater mobility can also lead to brain-drain in some cases.
• Third: Europe’s border regions are home to many linguistic minorities. These minorities are often the key to developing cross-border cooperation, which is an important component of European integration. I can tell from my own experience, because due to the nature of the borders, to history and to the geographical position of their community, the German-speaking Belgians have a particularly intense experience in dealing with borders.
• Forth: Europe’s regions need to recognise the added-value that regional and minority languages represent. They have an important contribution to make to cultural tourism and heritage work.
• And last but not least: Language is a key aspect of cultural identity. It is central to the collective memory of the population and the process in which complex cultural identities are transmitted. The need of strong regional identities is growing in times of globalization. I am convinced that there is no contradiction between both tendencies – as long as a well developed cultural identity does not lead to closing-in mentalities but rather to an opening towards others and to a sense of cooperation.

Language skills are an indispensable tool at the international level, but the key for successful cooperation is more than that! Its about getting to know the culture and the habits of our colleagues – maybe even to know them better then they do know themselves! Those “intercultural communication skills” are far more complicated than a sophisticated lesson about how to avoid ‘putting one’s foot in it’ and that’s where speakers of minority or regional languages bring an added value to the development of their region.

The European Academy in Bolzano generated an excellent Competence Analysis on National Minorities as a “Standortfaktor” (a ‘location-factor’) in the German-Danish border region. It shows clearly that minorities in border regions possess a strong social capital as “Ambassadors” or “Bridge builders” on the international level. This is also an aspect I can confirm from my own experience. The German-Speaking Community is small and I often compare our role to that of a triangle-player in an orchestra.

We do not play the solo but we always need to be alert in order to find the right moment to intervene. Just imagine a triangle player making his “ping” at the wrong moment… In international and cross-border relations, our French-speaking partners from the Walloon Region cherish our bridge-builder capacity for their contacts to the German Länder. That is one reason why we share a permanent representation bureau in Berlin which is coordinated by a functionary from our Ministry.

Another important contact for us is the one with other minorities across Europe. In this sense, the German-Speaking Community cooperated with minorities of South Tirol and Hungary in order to establish a literary comparison of the German minorities in Hungary, Belgium and Italy. The framework in which the selected pieces of regional literature were created is fundamentally different. Nevertheless, the contributions of 30 different authors have many characteristics in common, such as the displacement, the often traumatic history, the search for identity, language conflicts, or home connectivity… The book called “Seitensprünge” spans the range from the German heartland to the German enclave’s literature and brings regional literature into the spotlight.
Ladies and Gentlemen

Regional and local authorities need to be increasingly aware of the great potential regional or minority languages have for regional development. Therefore, the promotion and protection of theses languages should not only be seen as a way to promote cultural diversity. It also constitutes a valuable regional advantage (Standortfaktor) with strong effects for the economy, employment, education, tourism and cooperation with other regions.

The Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages are valuable instruments for protecting and supporting Europe’s minority populations. Those instruments deserve to be better known and implemented. It is important to encourage greater use of regional and minority languages in education, administration, the media, the economy and in public sector employment. Cultural activities, such as theatre performances, exhibitions, literary festivals and song competitions help to promote regional and minority languages.

In this context, we should never forget that regional and minority languages are far from being mere luxuries: they form an integral part of Europe’s rich cultural heritage and have a vital role to play in increasing the integration and economic prosperity of the greater European area.
Let me make one final observation:

The protection of minorities – in which I include regional or minority language – is a very important aspect which is deeply marked by the historical context.  It is also a real issue for the future. It is my personal conviction that we need a paradigm shift, a paradigm shift, which is actually already under way: Minority issues have often been exclusively considered from the perspective of their protection. That is a good thing because there is a lot to protect and there is a strong need for positive discrimination. I am sure that the next intervention on linguistic rights will give us an interesting insight into this issue.

There is still a lot to do for the preservation of these languages but that alone is not enough. Preservation can not be the only goal of minority politics! Minority protection only has any real prospects for the future if it has – but not exclusively (!) – to do with preservation of language, culture and folklore! Minorities are also very important players in the field of regional development and development in general. In other words: the paradigm shift goes from the idea of preservation to the role of minorities in strengthening the locational factor (Standortfaktor) of regions.

I hope today’s conference and its workshops will allow us to share a couple of examples with each other.
Thank you very much for your attention