United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Promoting immigrant minority languages

Paris - As regional minority languages gain increasing recognition and better treatment in Europe, what is the condition of the languages spoken by immigrant communities in the continent? Is their use encouraged, or are these languages seen as obstacles to the integration of these newcomers? Can they, should they, be taught in school to the children of these immigrant families?

As the world prepares to mark International Mother Language Day on February 21, UNESCO is launching the debate with a 50-page working paper – Language Diversity in Multicultural Europe, Comparative perspectives on immigrant minority languages at home and at school* - published by the Management of Social Transformations (MOST) programme.

It was written by two academics in the Netherlands, Guus Extra and Kutlay Yagmur. Mr Extra holds the Chair of Language and Minorities at the Tilburg University Arts Faculty and heads the Babylon Centre for Studies of Multilingualism in the Multicultural Society. Yagmur is Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics at the Arts Faculty of Tilburg University and researches multilingualism and language development.

“It has been estimated that in the year 2000 more than one third of the population under the age of 35 in urbanized Western Europe had an immigrant minority background,” the working paper points out, noting that the biggest immigrant groups in the European Union are Turkish and North African and live in France, Germany and Britain.

“During the last decades, many newcomers arrived in European Union countries in the context of workforce migration, family reunion, and lately mainly refugees from different continents,” the paper says. “An overall decrease of the indigenous population has been observed in all EU countries over the last decade; at the same time, there has been an increase in the immigrant minority figures.”

According to a recent study of 41,600 pupils aged four to 17 in 135 primary and secondary schools in The Hague, as many as 49% of the primary-age, and 42% of the secondary-age, children said they spoke a language other than Dutch at home. The five most often mentioned were, in descending order, Turkish, Hindi, Berber, Arabic and English.

The authors list the international standard-setting instruments concerning the use and learning of minority languages and argue that while European countries have recently taken many steps to ensure the survival of regional languages, they have made no specific provisions for the teaching and practice of immigrant languages.

“Catalan, Basque or Frisian enjoy legal and educational support in mainstream schools but similar support is not available for immigrant minority languages.” In fact, they say, “the learning and certainly the teaching of immigrant minority languages are often seen by speakers of dominant languages and by policy makers as obstacles to integration. At the European level, guidelines and directives regarding immigrant minority languages are rather scant and outdated.”
Regional and immigration languages should be treated on an equal footing, they say, backing their argument with two examples of “good education practice”, in the German Land of North-Rhine-Westphalia and in the southeast Australian State of Victoria.

A policy of “mother tongue education” was introduced in North-Rhine-Westphalia schools on August 1, 2000. To meet the needs of bilingual and trilingual children, optional language courses were offered to all primary and secondary pupils, for a maximum of five hours a week. In 2000, the programme included 18 languages, including Turkish, Tamil, Arabic, Spanish and Russian.

This policy aims to “to encourage a positive atmosphere both in schools and in the society,” according to the paper. “Also, knowing that their language and culture is respected by the school system and by mainstream society, pupils would develop a higher self-esteem and respect for the self and the other. In this way, intercultural communication and tolerance would be promoted as well.”

The case of North-Rhine-Westphalia is a model in the EU for learning mother languages, the authors say, but “compared to Victoria State in Australia, there is still some distance to cover.” There, “the ultimate goal of achieving multiculturalism is mostly realised (…) because learning more than one language is not only a task for immigrant minority children but for all students in the State.”

They note that in recent decades, Australia has shifted “from assimilationist policies to linguistic pluralism.” In Victoria, the school system has been completely restructured to introduce bilingualism in all primary schools. Before that, such schools taught only in English, while secondary schools only offered French, German, Italian and sometimes Latin as a second language.

In 2000, compulsory courses in “a language other than English” were taught in 41 languages in primary and/or secondary schools. The five languages chosen by most pupils were, in descending order, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, German and French.

The authors conclude with an appeal to the European authorities to adopt a charter on multilingualism covering all minority languages without distinction. “In order to safeguard the language rights of children from all backgrounds, new guidelines need to be made and such measures should have more binding force in the EU member states. European countries are increasingly becoming multicultural in nature and in order to safeguard social cohesion such measures are inevitable,” they say.

* http://www.unesco.org/most/discuss.htm

Source Press Release N 2003-14
Website 1 (URL)
Generic Field
Spanish | Russian | Arabic
Editorial Contact: Babylon, Center for Studies of Multiculturalism in the Multicultural Society, Tilburg University, PO Box 90153, 5000 LE Tilburg, The Netherlands, Tel. +(31) 13 466 2930 –– fax: +(31) 13 466 3110. E-mail. babylon@uvt.nl
Sophie Boukhari, UNESCO Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section, tel: +33 (0)1 45 68 17 03
- Email s.boukhari@unesco.org
Publication Date 19 Feb 2003
UNESCO 1995-2007 - ID: 9602