Minority language

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A minority language is a language spoken by a minority of the population of a territory. Such people are termed linguistic minorities or language minorities. With a total number of 196 sovereign states recognized internationally (as of 2019)[1] and an estimated number of roughly 5,000 to 7,000 languages spoken worldwide,[2] the vast majority of languages are minority languages in every country in which they are spoken. Some minority languages are simultaneously also official languages, such as Irish in Ireland or the numerous indigenous languages of Bolivia. Likewise, some national languages are often considered minority languages, insofar as they are the national language of a stateless nation.

Law and international politics[edit]


  Member states that have signed and ratified the charter.
  Member states that have signed but not ratified the charter.
  Member states that have neither signed nor ratified the charter.
  Non-member states of the Council of Europe.
Source: the list of signatories at the Council of Europe website.

For the purposes of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages:

"regional or minority languages" means languages that are:
  1. traditionally used within a given territory of a State by nationals of that State who form a group numerically smaller than the rest of the State's population; and
  2. different from the official language(s) of that State.

In most European countries, the minority languages are defined by legislation or constitutional documents and afforded some form of official support. In 1992, the Council of Europe adopted the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe.[3]

The signatories that have not yet ratified it as of 2012 are Azerbaijan, France, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, North Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, and Russia.

Refraining from signing or ratifying the Charter is also caused by the refusal (for instance, in Estonia or Malta) to recognize such postimperial world languages as English, French or Russian as minority languages, even if they are spoken by minority populations.[4] The symbolic, cultural and political power vested in such world languages empowers any demographically minority population to such a degree that any additional rights (for example, the status of a minority language) granted to their given world language may precipitate the rapid decline of the state (national) language in favor of the world language. That is the situation in Belarus, where after 1995 Russian empowered as an 'equal co-official language' marginalized the use of Belarusian. The Charter was employed to achieve the same effect in Ukraine after 2010 by marginalizing Ukrainian through empowered Russian, a scenario which was only prevented by the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.[5]


In Canada the term "minority language" is used in the Constitution of Canada, in the heading above section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees educational rights to official language minority communities. In Canada, the term "minority language" is generally understood to mean whichever of the official languages is less spoken in a particular province or territory (i.e., English in Québec, French elsewhere).


Minority languages may be marginalised within nations for a number of reasons. These include having a relatively small number of speakers, a decline in the number of speakers, and popular belief that these speakers are uncultured, or primitive, or the minority language is a dialect of the dominant language. Support for minority languages is sometimes viewed as supporting separatism, for example, the ongoing revival of the Celtic languages in the British Isles and France (Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish and Breton). The dominant culture may consider use of immigrant minority languages to be a threat to unity, indicating that such communities are not integrating into the larger culture.[citation needed] Both of these perceived threats are based on the notion of the exclusion of the majority language speakers. Often this is added to by political systems by not providing support (such as education and policing) in these languages.

Speakers of majority languages can and do learn minority languages, through the large number of courses available.[6] It is not known whether most students of minority languages are members of the minority community re-connecting with the community's language, or others seeking to become familiar with it.


Views differ as to whether the protection of official languages by a state representing the majority speakers violates the human rights of minority speakers. In March 2013, Rita Izsák, UN Independent Expert on minority issues, said that "protection of linguistic minority rights is a human rights obligation and an essential component of good governance, efforts to prevent tensions and conflict, and the construction of equal and politically and socially stable societies".[7]

In Slovakia for example, the Hungarian community generally considers the 'language law' enacted in 1995 to be discriminatory and inconsistent with the European Charter for the Protection of Regional or Minority languages. The Majority Slovaks believed that minority speakers' rights are guaranteed, in accordance with the highest European standards, and are not discriminated against by the state language having preferential status. The language law declares that "the Slovak language enjoys a preferential status over other languages spoken on the territory of the Slovak Republic." As a result of a 2009 amendment, a fine of up to €5,000 may be imposed for a misdemeanor from the regulations protecting the preferential status of the state language, e.g. if the name of a shop or a business is indicated on a sign-board first in the minority language and only after it in Slovak, or if in a bilingual text, the minority language part is written with bigger fonts than its Slovak equivalent, or if the bilingual text on a monument is translated from the minority language to the dominant language and not vice versa, or if a civil servant or doctor communicates with a minority speaker citizen in a minority language in a local community where the proportion of the minority speakers is less than 20%.[citation needed]

Sign languages are often not recognized as true natural languages, although extensive research supports the case that they are independent languages.

Speakers of auxiliary languages have also struggled for their recognition. They are used primarily as second languages and have few native speakers.

Languages lacking recognition in some countries[edit]

These are languages that have the status of a national language and are spoken by the majority population in at least one country, but lack recognition in other countries, even where there is a significant minority linguistic community:

  • Albanian – recognized minority language in many countries, including Romania, but not recognized as a minority language in Greece, where 4% of the population are ethnic Albanians.
  • Bulgarian – recognized minority language in the Czech Republic (4,300 speakers), but not officially recognized as minority language in Greece.
  • German: classified as an official language in Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Belgium and Switzerland, but as a minority elsewhere in Europe. It is recognised in South Tyrol, but not in France.
  • Hungarian: official in Hungary, and co-official in Serbia's Vojvodina province (293,000 speakers). It is a recognised minority language in the Czech Republic (14,000 speakers), and in Romania (1,447,544 speakers, 6.7% of the population), in those communities where the Hungarian speakers exceed 20% of the population; in Slovakia (520,000 speakers, approximately 10% of the population); in Slovenia (6,243 speakers in 2002[8]), and in Ukraine (170,000 speakers).
  • Macedonian – Macedonian is not recognized as minority language in Greece and Bulgaria.
  • Polish – recognized minority language in the Czech Republic (51,000 speakers), but it is not officially recognized as a minority language in Lithuania.
  • Romanian: official in Romania and co-official in Vojvodina province, Serbia, with (30,000 speakers), but it does not have official status in Serbia, where another 5300 speakers live outside this province.[9] Note: Ethnologue estimates 250,000 Romanian speakers in Serbia.[10] It is a minority language in northwestern Bulgaria (estimated 10,566 speakers); and in Ukraine (estimated 450,000 speakers).
  • Russian: official in Russia, and co-official in Belarus and Kazakhstan. It lacks official status in Estonia and Latvia, likely for historical reasons following Russian dominance during the Soviet Union era. (More than 25% of the population in the latter two nations are Russian speakers).
  • Serbian: official in Serbia, and co-official in Bosnia and Herzegovina . It has minority status in Montenegro, Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Romania. The minority status in Montenegro is controversial because the majority of the population (63.49%) declared Serbian to be their mother tongue.[citation needed] Serbian was an official language there until 2007, when Montenegro ratified a new constitution.

Significant languages having no majority of speakers in any country[edit]

Linguistic communities that form no majority of population in any country, but whose language has the status of an official language in at least one country:

Languages with no official status[edit]


Treasure Language[edit]

A treasure language is one of the thousands of small languages still spoken in the world today. The term was proposed by the Rama people of Nicaragua as an alternative to heritage language, indigenous language, and "ethnic language", names that are considered pejorative in the local context.[12] The term is now also used in the context of public storytelling events.[13]

The term "treasure language" references the desire of speakers to sustain the use of their mother tongue into the future:

[The] notion of treasure fit the idea of something that had been buried and almost lost, but was being rediscovered and now shown and shared. And the word treasure also evoked the notion of something belonging exclusively to the Rama people, who now attributed it real value and had become eager and proud of being able to show it to others.[12]

Accordingly, the term is distinct from endangered language for which objective criteria are available, or heritage language which describes an end-state for a language where individuals are more fluent in a dominant language.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ ONU members
  2. ^ "Ethnologue statistics". Summary by world area | Ethnologue. SIL.
  3. ^ Hult, F.M. (2004). "Planning for multilingualism and minority language rights in Sweden", Language Policy, 3(2), 181–201.
  4. ^ Tomasz Kamusella. 2021. Russian and English: Minority Languages in Europe? (pp 137-150). Slavica Wratislaviensia. Vol 174.
  5. ^ Michael Moser. 2013. Language Policy and Discourse on Languages in Ukraine Under President Viktor Yanukovych (25 February 2010–28 October 2012). Stuttgart: ibidem.
  6. ^ "List of Languages with Courses Available". Lang1234. Retrieved 12 September 2012.
  7. ^ "Protection of minority languages is a human rights obligation, UN expert says". UN News Centre. 12 March 2013. Retrieved 30 March 2014.
  8. ^ "Statistični urad RS - Popis 2002". www.stat.si. Retrieved 16 May 2022.
  9. ^ http://media.popis2011.stat.rs/2011/prvi_rezultati.pdf Serbian Preliminary 2011 Census Results
  10. ^ "Romanian". Ethnologue. 19 February 1999.
  11. ^ Baaij, C. J. W. (1 February 2018). Legal Integration and Language Diversity: Rethinking Translation in EU Lawmaking. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-068079-4.
  12. ^ a b Grinevald, Colette; Pivot, Bénédicte (2013). "On the revitalization of a 'treasure language': The Rama Language Project of Nicaragua". In Jones, Mari; Ogilvie, Sarah (eds.). Keeping Languages Alive: Documentation, Pedagogy and Revitalization. Cambridge University Press. pp. 181–197. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139245890.018. ISBN 9781139245890.
  13. ^ "Languages Treasured but Not Lost". East Bay Express. Oakland. 17 February 2016.
  14. ^ Hale, Kenneth; Hinton, Leanne, eds. (2001). The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice. Emerald Group Publishing.

External links[edit]