What do languages have to do with politics? Why do languages need to be supported by officials? And can a government decide in which language the people speak? Language policies have been shaped by history and are therefore always a sensitive topic to discuss. Still, it is interesting to see what has happened throughout Europe during the recent years and that is why we are going to have a closer look at this topic now.
Let’s start off with a definition. What exactly is a language policy? A language policy (sometimes also called: language planning) includes anything that a government officially does to determine how languages are used in public contexts and to establish the rights of individuals or groups to learn, use and maintain languages. This definition is taken from a book by James Crawford, an active supporter of multilingual education. It focuses on the fact that language policies are made by an official, either government bodies or other institutions such as the European Union.
Language policies are designed to bring about a change in the way languages are used by people or in an official context. In Francoist Spain (1936-1975) the Spanish language known as Castilian was declared the only official language and other languages such as Catalan, Basque and many more were suppressed. Having this in mind, the Spanish government of today is trying to find new solutions for the language issue. This is necessary as the share of the population speaking Catalan (around 11 Mio.), Galician (around 3 Mio.) and Basque (around 1 Mio.) as a first language is relatively high.
As Catalan, Galician and Basque are not official languages of Spain they are also not used as official and working languages in the European Union. However, any citizen of the EU should be able to address the Union in his own language. Therefore, a new process was introduced in 2006 that allows Catalan, Galician and Basque speakers to write letters to the Union in their native language. These letters are then translated into Spanish and the Spanish reply is translated back into Catalan, Galician or Basque. It is the Spanish government that bears for the costs of translation and interpretation. The procedure is complicated, but it ensures language rights to about 15 Mio. People and in 2008 and 2009 the UK followed the Spanish example and a similar process was introduced for Scots Gaelic and Welsh.
While Spain has only one official language Ireland has two while Irish being the first official language. The decision for Irish as a first official language was implemented by the Official Languages Act in 2003. When arriving at Dublin airport most travellers will be surprised to see all signs written in both languages, Irish in a bright green font and English below it. While Irish is spoken by about 25% of the Irish population (about 4.5 Mio.) the share of people who learn Irish as a first language is lower than that. But as Irish is one of the official languages of Ireland it is also an EU language since 2007. All EU legislation is now translated into Irish which led to a boom in the translation business in Ireland. Here at DCU Language Services, all our Irish translators are Foras na Gaeilge qualified and have at least 5 years experience in Irish translations. We provide professional Irish translation services to a wide variety of Government Departments, private companies and individuals. Find out more here.
There are people who disagree with this language policy and there is a lot of discussion on this topic. There have even been attempts recently to review the Official Languages Act and maybe change parts of it. An example for this is the simultaneous publication of bills in English and Irish which leads has now been changed, so bills can be published faster as the government does not have to wait for the Irish translation.
But it is not only the national governments that are trying to carry out successful language policies. Since some language groups do not have a national government to support them the European Union stands in order to protect minorities such as the Roma and Travellers who are living in several Eastern and Central European countries. As their language called Romani has not been taught in any schools so far, the language is in danger of disappearing. The Council of Europe published a framework paper that had to be amended by the member states. It includes the construction of Romani language classes so Roma children will be able to attend classes in their own language.
As you can see, languages and politics are not as far away from each other as they might seem. Any language policy that is made also influences the translation and interpreting business in a country. So watch out for any news in this area – they might be of importance for your business.
For a full version of the Irish Official Languages Act see here.
For more information on the EU Curriculum Framework for Romani see here.