Minority language

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A minority language is a language spoken by a minority of the population of a country. Such people are termed linguistic minorities. With a total number of 193 sovereign states recognized internationally (as of 2008) and an estimated number of roughly 5,000 to 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, it follows that the vast majority of languages are minority languages in every country in which they are spoken.

In Europe and in some other parts of the world, like in Canada, minority languages are often defined by legislation or constitutional documents and afforded some form of official support. The term, for example, appears in the Constitution of Canada in the heading above section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees minority language educational rights.

Some minority languages are simultaneously also official languages, including the Irish language (Gaelic) in the Republic of Ireland. Likewise, some national languages are often considered minority languages, insofar as they are the national language of a stateless nation.

Definition in international law

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


Minority languages are occasionally marginalised within nations for a number of reasons. These include the small number of speakers, the decline in the number of speakers, and their occasional consideration as uncultured, primitive, or simple dialects when compared to the dominant language. They are also occasionally viewed as a threat, for example the recent resurgence of Celtic languages (Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish and Breton)[1] are viewed by some to be support for separatism, thus as a threat to the political establishment. Immigrant minority languages are often also seen as a threat and as indicative of the non-integration of these communities. 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.

Signed languages are often not recognized as true natural languages even though they are supported by extensive research. In the United States, for example, American Sign Language is the most used minority language yet almost the only minority language which lacks official government recognition.

Auxiliary languages have also struggled for recognition, perhaps partly because they are used primarily as second languages and have few native speakers.

Largest minority languages

The largest communities of speakers that of a language not recognized as a nation-wide official language anywhere:

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

Linguistic communities whose language has the status of a national language in at least one country but lacks it in another countries:

  • Kurdish language: official in Northern Iraq, but lacking official status in Turkey (more than 5 million speakers)
  • Russian language: official in Russia, co-official in Belarus and Kazakhstan, lacking official status in Ukraine, Estonia and Latvia (more than 25% of population).

See also