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Minority languages matter - particularly in a health crisis

Language barriers could put certain segments of the community at greater risk during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Vesna Crnić-Grotić, Professor of international law at the University of Rijeka, Croatia, explains the Council of Europe’s Charter on regional and minority languages and makes the case for the use of regional and minority languages is important in all contexts, and especially during a public emergency.


Hello, there’s growing evidence to suggest that language barriers might be one cause of more people from certain communities being affected by coronavirus than others. To discuss this, I’m joined by Vesna Crnić-Grotić, the chair of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.


Professor Crnic-Grotic, what evidence is there to suggest that minority languages are not being used as much as they could to communicate important messages during the coronavirus pandemic?

VCG : Watching the news on a daily basis on TV, we can witness that the countries in this situation have created separate bodies, central bodies that take care of information, data, of instruction. They communicate in the official language of that particular state. In most cases, they will have a person interpreting for the deaf in sign language but I have not seen subtitles in any of the minority languages that are spoken in particular countries. In this context, I think it is safe to assume that minority languages are not being used.


For governments and relevant authorities, is equal language support then a question of money or of will?

VCG : I guess it is a bit of both. I think the message that they are sending in this situation seems to be that the minority languages are not really as important as the official language, that if we can communicate in one language that is fine, that is enough. I think this again is an objective of the Charter: to give visibility to regional minority languages in every situation and also to show that their use is important in all contexts, and especially in the context of a public emergency like this pandemic. This situation is really unique and we think that the Charter has been created to cover such situations.


When we talk about the Charter, we are of course talking about the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. For those who don’t know, could we examine how this Charter can be used to provide protection during this or a similar crisis?

VCG : The Charter is designed to take a proactive approach to the protection of regional minority languages. States should take steps to promote the use of minority languages, recognize the languages and their full potential, and also recognize the right of users of the languages to be treated equally. The Charter is a specific instrument in that respect, it depends very much on the undertakings that states parties have chosen for particular languages. That means that not all states participating have the same undertakings, and it also means that within one state not all languages enjoy the same level of protection. In that respect, the Charter is based on a ‘menus’ system, where states have freedom to choose a particular level of undertakings for a particular language. Some of these languages are just as developed, present, spoken by millions of people as any other official language. Some of these languages are smaller and not spoken by a big community but they deserve the attention that should be given to speakers of the languages.


There are specific parts of the Charter dealing with healthcare and public administration. What are they and how might they help in this instance?

VCG: The protection in the context of health – if chosen by the state party, means that regional/minority languages should be used when treating patients. What is the worst case scenario in this instance? You will often hear from health workers that people die alone in this pandemic, this is so sad. If they die alone, surrounded by people who do not speak their language, that is even sader. I think that the importance of giving instruction and orders concerning your health in the language that you are most comfortable in is very very important and it cannot be stressed enough. At the same time, there are the administrative authorities at different levels who should also consider using regional minority languages and giving their instructions in the language that is used on a particular territory.


By using minority languages, might that help to prevent the spread of diseases such as COVID-19?

VCG : In most cases, minority-language speakers will also be very competent in the official language of the state, but let’s not forget that there are parts of some countries where the official language is not so present and where the minority languages are dominant languages of that particular territory. Any order or instruction in that language would be better accepted by the inhabitants, the people who live in that territory. This is, of course, to bring the instructions closer to home, make them clearer and better understood, so we don’t have people drinking bleach, for example (as was the case in a particular country that I will not name here).


So, to sum-up then, what would you be suggesting to governments, to authorities, to best help their populations when it comes to minority languages and their use?

VCG : I would remind them, especially the state parties, of their obligations under the Charter, remind them of the proactive approach that the Charter requires, and also to consider that people in extreme situations may also forget their learned language. The official language is usually the learned language. For some parts of the population, especially the elderly, it is very important to communicate in the language they are most comfortable in. It is the aim of the Charter to promote the use of regional minority languages for all practical purposes.


Professor Crnic-Grotic, thank you very much indeed.