Why some of Europe's oldest languages are at risk of going extinct

Multilingualism is enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, but many regional and minority languages are at risk of dying out across the Continent.
A protest in France, against the modification of the law on the teaching of regional languages | Photo: Alamy

By Marilyn Wright

Marilyn Wright is a journalist based in London

08 Feb 2024

Demad! If you have understood the Breton word for ‘hello’ then, sadly, you’re in the minority. According to the French culture ministry there are about 280,000 Breton speakers – mostly older people in rural central Brittany – and some 600,000 people who speak it occasionally.   

Along with Friulian (spoken by about 526,000 people in Italy) and Frisian (which has about 500,000 speakers spread out over parts of the Netherlands and Germany), this centuries-old language is fast disappearing. Even Basque, thought to be Europe’s oldest surviving language, only has some 700,000 speakers in France and Spain.  

In the European Union, there are around 60 regional and minority languages. Between dwindling numbers of native speakers and a lack of appetite among others to learn, there’s a real possibility some could slip away entirely – taking a huge slice of cultural heritage with them. Should EU institutions be doing more to reverse the decline? François Alfonsi thinks so.  

“We are witnessing a kind of contempt for certain cultures and languages that have helped to build Europe throughout its history, just as much as the languages that are considered official today by the EU,” the French MEP, a member of the Greens/European Free Alliance, tells The Parliament. “This is unacceptable.”    

Alfonsi is co-chair of the Intergroup on Traditional Minorities, National Communities and Languages, and he has been banging the drum for minority languages for several years. Known as the Alfonsi Resolution, his 2013 report on endangered languages noted that these languages were not receiving sufficient attention in the Commission’s multilingualism policy and that their funding had decreased over the years.  

In 2023, Dr Vicent Climent-Ferrando, a researcher at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona and the Unesco chair on language policies for multilingualism, completed a study assessing EU support for regional and minority languages since the Alfonsi Resolution through 2023.   

We are witnessing a kind of contempt for certain languages that have helped to build Europe throughout its history

“Its conclusions are more than alarming, demonstrating that regional and minority languages are in serious danger of extinction,” Alfonsi tells The Parliament.  “[The study] clearly demonstrates a lack of political will on the part of the European Commission to protect and promote regional and minority languages.”  

Alfonsi says the study highlights the following problems: lack of data and statistics on endangered languages, and in particular on their funding; priority given to languages from an economic point of view, which creates an artificial hierarchy between languages considered useful and those considered less necessary; and lack of consideration for minority and regional languages in the development of language technologies, which contributes to their digital extinction.  

“Today, the fight for regional and minority languages must face up to a new front, that of presence on the internet and in the digital environment,” Alfonsi says. “Over the last 20 years, the development of social networks has revolutionised the relationship between citizens and the media, and without a presence on the net, a language will be doomed to marginalisation.”  

Alfonsi concedes that there are a number of innovative initiatives, notably from Catalonia and the Basque Country, to develop language technologies. “But they are still not enough,” he says, “and we can see that our languages have little presence on the internet and are victims of discrimination. We need to draw inspiration from these initiatives for all our languages, and we hope that the European Union will invest in this sector to support them.”  

On this point, Sabine Verheyen has some positive news. The chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education and a member of the European People’s Party, tells The Parliament: “The European Union is actively leveraging language technology and innovation to provide robust support for minority languages, encompassing translation services, language learning apps, and digital preservation efforts.”  

The German MEP continues: “Through programmes such as Language Equality in the Digital Age, the Digital Single Market Strategy, and targeted funding via initiatives like Horizon Europe, the EU underscores its commitment to harnessing language technology and innovation for the robust support of minority languages in the digital era.”  

And while Verheyen acknowledges that these programmes do not explicitly focus on minority languages, she says they still hold the potential to support them. She adds: “In the future, we should make greater use of digitalisation to promote the preservation of minority languages.”  

Verheyen is well aware that the preservation and promotion of minority languages within the EU presents a challenge that demands careful consideration.   

“With a diverse linguistic landscape spanning across Member States, the EU faces the task of navigating varying language policies, demographics and the broader impact of globalisation on linguistic diversity,” she says. “Ensuring equal access to digital resources, overcoming the digital divide, and integrating minority languages into education systems are critical areas that warrant ongoing attention.”    

Alexandra Philbin, based in València but originally from Baile Átha Cliath – or Dublin in Irish – is playing a part in making that happen. As a language revitalisation mentor and linguistics researcher, she works with the Endangered Languages Project (ELP), an online space that supports the revitalisation and documentation of indigenous, minoritised and endangered languages around the world.   

We should make greater use of digitalisation to promote the preservation of minority languages

Founded by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council in Canada and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, ELP is led by representatives from different organisations and universities. Although there are two full-time staff members and four people employed as mentors, many of its activities depend on volunteers.  

Through its website, users can not only find information on endangered languages and access language resources, but also play an active role in putting their languages online by submitting samples in the form of text, audio or video files.   

“We cannot think about languages without thinking about the people who use them,” says Philbin. “Users of minoritised languages have suffered, and continue to suffer, violence and discrimination. By protecting minoritised languages, we support these people in their fight against inequality, and help to create a more just world.”  

Philbin says working in the field of language revitalisation has also allowed her to connect with users of other minoritised languages. “I really appreciate how much I have learnt from them all about languages, identities and resistance,” she says. “Speaking Irish has brought me closer to many wonderful people, who inspire me daily with their creativity, their fun and their commitment to Irish and language equality,” she tells The Parliament.   

This sense of connection is shared by Durk Gorter, the former head of a research group focused on education and multilingualism at the University of the Basque Country. “Growing up in three languages – Dutch, Frisian and Low-Saxon – and learning some others later in life, such as English, German, French, Spanish and Basque, my multilingualism has given me extra windows on the world,” says Gorter, whose areas of study include multilingual education, European minority languages and linguistic landscapes.   

Gorter tells The Parliament that speaking a minority language has been “extremely useful” in helping him relate to those close to him – his partner, children, family, friends and community. “Frisian was useful to find a job and do my research – and thanks to Frisian, I found a room in Amsterdam,” he says, explaining that he moved into accommodation exclusively reserved for Frisians when he was student in the 1970s.   

Property hunting aside, how else do EU citizens benefit from keeping minority languages alive?   

“Languages serve as the most immediate expression of our culture,” Verheyen says. Quoting the Treaty on European Union, she points out that recognition and respect for linguistic diversity constitutes a foundational value for the bloc. That sentiment is reflected in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, too.   

In addition to digital efforts, there is also an appetite for maintaining minority languages in their analogue form. Newspapers from Spain to Finland and Denmark to Romania have joined the European Association of Daily Newspapers in Minority and Regional Languages (MIDAS), an advocacy group founded in 2001 following a proposal by editors-in-chief from more than 10 language communities across Europe.  

“For some minorities, the daily newspaper is the only piece of information written in their mother tongue,” Marc Röggla, the Bolzano-based general secretary of MIDAS, tells The Parliament. “They provide local news, relevant for the minority, which majority media normally do not cover. They are not only a piece of information, but also a document which describes the history of a minority and is used by the new generation as a material in school to learn the language. They are a testament to the diversity in Europe.”  

With so many voices in support of safeguarding minority languages, what are the EU’s future plans?   

According to Verheyen, collaborative efforts between the EU and Member States, as well as engagement with international organisations, will play a pivotal role. “Inclusive policies that consider the unique needs of minority language communities, along with sustained investment in digital innovation and educational programmes, will be key components of future strategies,” she says.   

Advocacy campaigns aimed at raising public awareness about the cultural richness associated with linguistic diversity will also be instrumental in fostering a supportive environment for minority languages, Verheyen adds. “It is essential to emphasise the significance of ongoing research and data collection to inform evidence-based policies and ensure the effective preservation and promotion of minority languages in the EU.”  

As Verheyen points out, the EU is guided by the principle of ‘united by diversity.’ In that spirit, let’s hope it’s not kenavo to Breton and the EU’s other regional and minority languages.  

Read the most recent articles written by Marilyn Wright - Air pollution in Europe: The silent killer


Culture & Arts