Are Austerity Measures Wiping Out Your Language?

December 2, 2011 by totalityservices

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Balancing spending cuts and minority language representation

At a time of austerity measures and cuts to public sector spending, the public are easily inflamed when they see what they consider to be public money being wasted. This is true not just in the UK but elsewhere in Europe, as we have seen over the last year.

In Spain the decision to allow senators to debate in regional languages other than Castilian Spanish sparked controversy due to the cost of providing the necessary interpreting. And now the fiercest critic of them all has been elected the next Spanish prime minister.

Can the use of minority languages in parliamentary debates be justified, or is minority language provision not of sufficient importance to escape public spending cuts?

In Spain, the decision was made in January to allow senators to debate in Catalan, Galician, Valencian and Euskera as well as in Castilian Spanish in the Upper Chamber of Parliament. Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party (the opposition party at the time) was fiercely critical of the move, and amongst certain sections of the Spanish public the decision was also unpopular.

The Spanish media reported that the cost of the interpreting is €12,000 (£10,000) per day of debating, with the implication that this expenditure was extravagant and unnecessary. Now that Mr Rajoy has been elected to lead Spain, the question arises as to how minority languages will fare if recession strikes again.

Back in January, when senators started to exercise their new-found privilege of debating in the regional language of their choice, Mr Rajoy said that “something like this would not happen in any normal country”. This is despite the fact that the upper chamber represents all of Spain’s regions and that the languages are accepted as official in four of them.

Around 11% of the Spanish population natively speaks a minority language, while around a third of the population speaks one of them regularly. What should also be borne in mind is that one of the historical reasons that relatively few Spanish people master the minority languages is as a result of Franco’s una bandera, una patria, una lengua (one flag, one homeland, one language) policies, which forbade use of minority languages so that even shop signs had to be in Castilian Spanish. This means that the speakers of minority languages in Spain still carry past grievances with them and become heated when Castilian speakers oppose their use of their native language in their own country.

In fact there are many other counties who have not been subject to dictator-rule that have co-official languages, including Canada, New Zealand, Belgium, Switzerland, South Africa (with 11 official languages) and India, amongst others. Let us take a brief look at what rights co-official languages enjoy in three of these countries:

In Canada the situation is slightly different in that neither of the official languages, French and English, are minority languages. Both languages enjoy the same rights and privileges in their use in all Parliament and Government institutions, including parliamentary debates, and this has been the case since 1959.

In Belgium Dutch, French and German are all official languages, and Parliament can choose whichever language they like to make speeches, with the chamber providing simultaneous interpreting.

In the Swiss confederation there are four official languages, French, German, Italian and Romansh (spoken by 0.9% of the population). Romansh (or its standardised form, Rumantsch Grischun) is used in schoolbooks, government texts, and correspondence with the federal government, but it is not used in Swiss Parliament, where the chamber offers interpretation of debates in French, German and Italian. However the number of speakers of Romansh is only estimated to be around 60,000, which is a fraction of the number of speakers of Euskera (Basque), estimated to be 665,800.

So just how many speakers of a language, either in numbers or as a percentage of the population, are needed to justify their use in Parliamentary debates? And what are the political and socio-cultural advantages of allowing them to be used?

Though people may at first think that allowing minority languages to be used in Parliamentary debates is a waste of money, banning them could be said to inhibit true representation, given that different languages express ideas and concepts in different ways. Use of a minority language also gives that language a symbolic power that is important in terms of promoting the identity and linguistic heritage of its speakers. Most importantly, using minority languages in the political arena prevents ‘majority languages’ and the cultures, values and populations they represent from monopolising the political discourse.

The question of whether this is worth €12,000 per day is a difficult one, but denying Spanish senators the right to debate in their regional language would certainly seem to be a backward step. Arguably, it is only by allowing a plurality of discourses to be present in the Upper Chamber that the Spanish nation can truly be represented there.

Given the current economic situation, and with conservative governments replacing more liberal ones in many countries in Europe, we must be watchful that the status of minority languages is not undermined. Austerity cuts have been shown to have a negative impact on the most vulnerable sections of society, including single parents and the disabled. Let us make sure that minority languages are not given the same treatment.

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