UK must protect minority languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 16 12:51:50 UTC 2007

UK must protect minority languages Mar 15 2007


The Government must do more to meet its obligations to protect minority
languages, a report warned today. The call came in an 86-page report from
a Council of Europe watchdog monitoring the European Charter for Regional
or Minority Languages, which came into force in the UK in July 2001. It
commits the Government to safeguard and promote Welsh, Scottish Gaelic,
Irish, Scots, Ulster-Scots, Cornish and Manx Gaelic. Todays report, drawn
up by a committee of independent experts, recommends that the UK

develop a comprehensive Irish language policy;

give more support for the printed media in Irish and Scottish Gaelic;

improve services in Welsh in health and social care facilities;

make efforts to improve the position of Scots and Ulster Scots.

The report is based on monitoring of the minority language situation in
the UK between December 2005 and February last year.  It says the main
responsibility for the practical implementation of the Charters goals of
recognising and respecting the value of minority languages rests with
devolved authorities. But central government has the final responsibility
to see the Charter is applied.

The monitoring exercise had revealed wide differences in the treatment of
minority languages around the country, it said. In Northern Ireland, where
there were demands for an Irish Language Act, representatives of Irish
speakers had reported problems promoting Irish because of demands for
equal treatment for Ulster Scots. And as parity for Ulster Scots was not
practically possible, no action had been taken at all in some cases
following request for measures "appropriate to the Irish language".

In Scotland, the arrival of the Gaelic Language Act and the creation of
the Gaelic Language Board should strengthen and improve the status of
Scots Gaelic, says the report, but "the lack of a clearly defined language
status for Scots seems to lead to difficulties creating any national or
over-arching language policy or developing a comprehensive language plan".
In Wales, latest plans for promoting Welsh had produced mixed reactions,
the reports authors found.

The intention was to set up an independent advisory office "Dyfarnydd" -
for the Welsh language, but its role had not been defined. And the planned
merger of the Welsh Language Board and the Welsh Assembly Government had
been postponed until after this years elections in May. On the planned
merger, the report comments: "There was a fear that this might lead to a
politicisation of the language, and that there would be no body that
independently monitors the development of the Welsh language".

Manx speakers have increased from 165 in a 1961 census to 1,689 in 2001,
adds the report. The language was first taught in schools in 1992, and the
Isle of Man Government plan includes a target of increasing the teaching
of Manx in schools. In Cornwall, the report notes the creation of a
Cornish Language Strategy to boost respect for Cornish alongside other
minority languages: "Although there are an estimated 300 speakers, it has
been pointed out to the committee experts that here is an urgent need for
a survey on the number of fluent speakers and the number of learners of

The report says better data would help the prospects for most minority
languages: "For some of these languages there are no reliable data as to
the number of speakers and their degree of language competence and it
would be useful for further language planning to include this issue in
future censuses." The report observes: "What seems to be symptomatic and
recurrent (for minority languages in the UK) is a lack of standardisation
or codification needed for the use of the language in many aspects of
public life, often a low prestige attached to the language, and finally a
lack of an over-arching language strategy and plan.

"This leads (supporters of minority languages) to perceive the current
policies as being merely half-hearted". The Strasbourg-based Council of
Europes Committee of Ministers backed the findings in a statement today
and said the UK authorities should act on them "as a matter of priority".


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