Languages are immensely enriching. They enable us to communicate with more people, to be better understood and to better understand other perspectives. Unfortunately, however, in many countries of the Council of Europe, languages are still sometimes used as tools to pit people against each other.
Preventing people from using the language they consider their own in different settings can lead to a violation of their rights as individuals. Beyond this, entire communities are also negatively affected; and conflicts between different groups or between neighbouring countries often revolve around the use of languages.
The language one uses tends to be an essential defining element of a person’s identity. In addition to its role as a communication tool, it carries an important symbolic value in defining how people are perceived by others and how they see themselves and their place in society. As such, it can be a controversial and politically charged issue. For example, using the state or official language is in many places considered as proof of one’s loyalty to the state. In other contexts, the use of minority languages on signs visible to the public (such as street names, sometimes requiring the use of a different alphabet) is experienced or presented as an unwelcome physical reminder of the multi-cultural and multi-lingual fabric of society.
Particularly in contexts marked by a history of conflict along ethnic and/or linguistic lines, it is therefore paramount for everyone to recognise that sound policies on the use of languages, which acknowledge diversity and find ways of accommodating different languages and cultures, are an indispensable step on the path these societies must walk towards reconciliation and lasting social cohesion.
Laws on the use of languages can be a source of tensions
Many countries across Europe have legislated on the use of languages, often -- though not always -- with the aim of reinforcing the knowledge and use of one official or state language. While this is a perfectly legitimate goal, it has often been pursued without sufficient consultation of the speakers of minority languages and without thorough consideration for their rights and needs. Laws on the use of languages have sometimes been accompanied by forceful implementation measures. And in some cases, their main aim has been that of further reinforcing the dominant position of the majority population and curtailing the rights of persons belonging to national minorities.
These initiatives have in most cases exacerbated tensions and polarised societies even further.
Beyond its symbolic value, the language one uses has an important practical impact in different areas of life, including access to education, employment, health care or social services, and more generally, participation in society. Therefore, unbalanced or unfair laws and policies on languages can have long-lasting detrimental effects on certain groups of society and on social cohesion as a whole.
International efforts to reduce the potential for tensions around language issues
At the end of the 1990s and following the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and former Soviet Union, mechanisms aimed at preventing a repetition of the disastrous conflicts of that decade were set up. One of their features was to take disputes around ethnic and linguistic issues out of the reserved domain of states and instead seek solutions in multilateral fora, based on international law, including human rights law.
In 1998, the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) entered into force. It was designed to ensure better respect for minority rights as a tool to strengthen stability, democratic security and peace.
In 1996, the OSCE appointed its first High Commissioner for National Minorities (HCNM), whose role is to address causes of ethnic tensions, and prevent conflicts between or within states over national minority issues, acting as an early warning mechanism.
Due to their sensitivity and potential for conflict, language-related issues have been a subject of particular attention of both the OSCE/HCNM and the Advisory Committee on the FCNM, the expert body in charge of monitoring the implementation of the FCNM.
Other instruments have contributed to the establishment of a solid international framework for the protection of the rights of national minorities, including language related rights. They include the UN Declaration on the Rights of National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992) and the Council of Europe’s European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (1998).
This international framework provides a range of tools to regulate in a peaceful and balanced manner the use of different languages in today’s increasingly diverse societies. My Office has on several occasions urged governments to adhere to those standards when dealing with tense situations related to the use of languages.
International standards provide useful general guidance for dealing with language issues in a human rights-compliant manner. This does not mean that a “one-size-fits-all” approach is workable, or even advisable. Care should be taken to tailor language policies to each unique context.
I outline below some of the key do’s and don’ts for managing linguistic diversity, upholding the rights of persons belonging to national minorities and avoiding polarisation and tensions around these issues.
Promoting social cohesion through balanced policies on languages
Supporting the use of the official or state language as a tool to protect public order, consolidate national identity and reinforce social cohesion is a legitimate objective of state policy. Persons belonging to national minorities themselves benefit from proficiency in the official language, which fosters their inclusion in society and participation in public life. However, this goal should not be pursued at the expense of the rights of speakers of other languages, especially those belonging to national minorities, nor should any measures taken to that end exacerbate existing cleavages.
The Advisory Committee on the FCNM has consistently emphasised, in respect of a range of countries, including Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Moldova, North Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and the Russian Federation, that policies on the use of languages should aim to reconcile the needs of different groups of speakers, those of the state and those of society as a whole, rather than deepening gaps between different groups based on linguistic differences. For example, in its 2018 Opinion on Russia, it noted that this country had developed a policy of strong support for the Russian language and culture while at the same time limiting effective support for minority languages and cultures, which appeared to be marginalised and perceived as a source of potential conflict. The Committee stressed that a genuinely cohesive and integrated society could only be built through embracing diversity, including linguistic diversity, and guaranteeing full respect for and protection of minority cultures and languages.
Legislating on the use of languages should meet a real need in society, such as improving the proficiency of students in the official language, easing relations with the administration for persons belonging to national minorities, improving their access to the labour market or ensuring that people speaking minority languages can preserve their language and culture and be full members of society. Regrettably, reality paints a different picture. All too often, laws and policies are introduced with a “zero-sum” mindset emphasising the importance of one ethnic and linguistic identity at the expense of others, and are motivated by nationalistic, ethnocentric or populist ideologies, or simply by a calculating self-interest in electoral times.
It is crucial to involve, in a meaningful manner, representatives of civil society, and specifically members of minorities, when reforms of language laws and policies are undertaken, in order to ensure that their needs are understood and taken into consideration. Excluding them from discussions, or carrying out only token consultations, has led to social unrest and the further alienation of minorities in different countries. In April this year, I voiced my concern about the hasty adoption by Ukraine of a new law “on ensuring the functioning of Ukrainian as a state language” shortly before the general elections and without adequate public consultation. I now look forward to the forthcoming opinion on the law by the Venice Commission, whose independent expertise will help shed more light on the impact that this law may have on the rights of persons belonging to Ukraine’s numerous linguistic communities, including the Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, Tatar and other minorities.
Tackling discrimination based on language
Laws and policies that promote the use of a specific language should not result in discriminatory treatment of some groups of the population. Therefore, before introducing new measures regulating the use of languages, the authorities should carefully assess the possible disproportionate impact of such measures, especially on persons belonging to national minorities. The Advisory Committee on the FCNM has indeed highlighted that strict language requirements can constitute a disproportionate obstacle for persons belonging to national minorities in a range of areas, such as access to employment, participation in political life, and access to health care and education. In the case of Latvia and Estonia for instance, it deplored insufficient access for persons belonging to minorities to public positions due to overly strict language requirements.
It is therefore crucial for countries to ensure that they have an effective anti-discrimination legal framework in place, which explicitly prohibits discrimination based on ethnic or national origin as well as on language, and, importantly, which foresees effective remedies for persons alleging such discrimination. For example, my Office invited the Belgian authorities, back in 2009, to set up an effective and impartial mechanism to deal with complaints regarding discrimination based on language. Such a remedy does not yet exist.
Using incentives rather than sanctions to ensure implementation
Some member states have opted for tough measures to promote the implementation of their language laws and policies. International human rights bodies have criticised the setting up of inspection systems and, in some cases, the possibility of imposing sanctions and fines, as well as rigid systems of linguistic quotas, as unnecessary and disproportionate measures. The effectiveness of such forceful approaches has also proven to be limited. In fact, they are most likely to be counter-productive and generate further polarisation of society and increased marginalisation of persons belonging to minorities. These forceful measures should be avoided. Where provisions to ensure the implementation of language laws and policies are in place, it is essential to implement them in a measured and pragmatic manner, through incentives for language learning and use, rather than coercion.
A particularly important incentive is to ensure that there are enough opportunities for learning the state or official language and that the offer is accessible and of adequate quality. This is crucial to ensure access for all to a shared and common language. I read with interest the findings of a recent audit report about the teaching of Estonian language for adults in Estonia, which showed a shortage of funding and adequately trained teachers. The report indicated for example that in 2015, the plan was to offer free language classes to 540 persons, while in fact almost 6,000 people applied for such classes. Lack of funds and/or trained teachers and the quality of teaching materials have also been issues of concern in several other countries.
Crucially, any measure to strengthen the use of the state language should also go hand in hand with solid guarantees for persons belonging to national minorities that they can effectively use their languages, including in the education system. This is unfortunately not always the case. In an Opinion of 2019, for instance, the Advisory Committee called on the Georgian authorities to complement the policy of promotion of the use of Georgian language in all areas of public life with more vigorous measures to support the use of minority languages in relations with the administration, as well as the teaching and learning in and of those languages.
Respecting the language rights of persons belonging to minorities can actually work as an incentive for them to learn and use the state language, as doing so will be less likely to be perceived as detrimental to the preservation of their cultural and linguistic identity.
Time is also a key ingredient for a balanced and fair language policy. Law and policy reforms in the field of languages should be implemented gradually, to allow persons to acquire the necessary skills without being negatively impacted. This is especially true for reforms in the field of education, where it is of the utmost importance to avoid reforms translating into students belonging to linguistic minorities being disadvantaged.
Promoting plurilingual education
I have strongly criticised practices whereby school children are separated based on ethnic and linguistic affiliations, as in my own country Bosnia and Herzegovina, in North Macedonia, Croatia and Kosovo.* Segregation exacerbate divisions and heightens the risk of conflict. My Office has over the years urged the authorities of several countries to promote possibilities for children to take part in bilingual or plurilingual and inclusive education from an early age, especially in regions populated by persons belonging to different ethnic and linguistic groups. Bilingual or plurilingual education is beneficial both for relations between different communities and for the cognitive development of students. The extensive work of the Council of Europe on plurilingual education provides useful guidance on how to design sound education policies which take into account linguistic diversity.
Being educated together helps young people understand that individuals cannot be reduced to static and rigid identities: they can have multiple affiliations, or simply use different languages in different contexts. Monolithic conceptions of identity also do not take the diversity of situations existing within each group as regards language affiliation into account. Enabling students to understand that identities can be multifaceted is a precious tool for strengthening social cohesion and preventing future conflicts in our increasingly diverse societies.
The successful struggle of the students of one school in Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina, who actively opposed the transformation of their school into a segregated institution based on the existing model of “two schools under one roof”, shows that divisions based on real or alleged linguistic differences can be overcome.
When teaching of or in minority languages is provided, it is equally important to uphold the quality of teaching, but also to ensure continuity throughout the education system. For example, limiting the teaching in minority languages only up to a certain grade can act as a clear disincentive for minority language education. In this regard, I am worried, for instance, that the 2018 education reform in Latvia which gradually reduces the share of teaching in Russian (to a ratio of 80% Latvian and 20% Russian) in secondary schools, runs the risk of transforming the existing bilingual education system in place since 2004 into a system which offers only some language and culture classes in the minority language. I am also concerned at media reports indicating that the Latvian government is considering making Latvian the only teaching language in public schools.
Moreover, I find it disturbing that some countries (such as Latvia and Ukraine) have taken steps to establish rules for the teaching in languages of the European Union which are different from those applying to other languages, thereby establishing unjustified differences of treatment between speakers of different national minority languages.
What approach to depoliticise language issues?
What is needed are inclusive and pragmatic approaches that take into account the real needs of different groups in society and aim for balance, compromise and reconciliation rather than opposition and cleavages. Such approaches should aim for the full respect of the rights of persons belonging to national minorities, peaceful interaction of persons with different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds and opportunities for all, on an equal footing, to take part in society.
States therefore need to create environments in which diversity is not perceived as a threat, where all members of society feel safe to use their language without fearing discrimination, and where at the same time, a common language can be shared.
Fostering a common identity does not need to be based exclusively on the use of one language, it can also build on other, more inclusive values, such as common traditions, a common citizenship -beyond linguistic and ethnic differences-, a shared vision of the future and the celebration of diversity as a source of wealth, collective resilience and trust.
Promoting plurilingualism in key areas such as education, political life, the media or public administration can greatly contribute to achieving this goal.
List of additional international reference documents:
Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, Third thematic commentary on: “The language rights of persons belonging to national minorities under the Framework Convention”, 2012
Council of Europe Language Policy Portal: https://www.coe.int/en/web/language-policy/home
OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, The Oslo Recommendations regarding the Linguistic Rights of National Minorities, 1998
Council of Europe Venice Commission for Democracy through Law:
Opinion No 555/2009 on the Act on the State Language of the Slovak Republic, 2010
Opinion No 605/2010 on the draft law on languages in Ukraine, 2011
Opinion No 902/2017 on the provisions of the law on education of Ukraine of 5 September 2017 which concern the use of the state language and minority and other languages in education, 2017
UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Language Rights of Linguistic Minorities, A Practical Guide for Implementation, March 2017.
 The main feature of this system is that students attend two distinct schools located in one building and follow two separate curricula in the Bosnian and Croatian languages. Students use different textbooks and have different teachers. Each school has its own school administration.
* All reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999) and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.