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The Protection of Minority and Regional Languages in Germany

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Moin (“hello” in Low German)! Today, September 26, 2018, is the European Day of Languages. The European Day of Languages celebrates “linguistic diversity in Europe and promote[s] language learning.” In 2001, the European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe (CoE) jointly organized the European Year of Languages, which turned out to be so successful that the CoE decided to establish an annual event. As one of the objectives of the European Day of Languages is to “promot[e] the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe,” it seemed like a good opportunity to talk about the legal protection of minority and regional languages in Germany.

Legal Framework

Several international documents address linguistic rights. Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, provides that in “[s]tates in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right […] to use their own language.” Article 22 of the Charter for Fundamental Rights of the European Union obligates the EU to “respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity,” whereas article 22 prohibits discrimination based on language.

The most important legal document with regard to linguistic rights, however, is the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (Charter), which was adopted by the CoE in 1992. Germany ratified it in 1998 and it entered into force in Germany on January 1, 1999. The goal of the Charter is to protect and promote regional and minority languages and to enable speakers to use them both in private and public life. (Charter, art. 7.) States Parties therefore commit themselves to actively promote the use of these languages in education, courts, administration, media, culture, economic and social life, and cross-border cooperation. (Id. arts. 8-14 (part III).) They must choose at least 35 measures from the ones proposed in part III of the Charter. (Id. art. 2, para. 2.) Every three years, States Parties must submit reports to the Secretary General of the CoE on their policies and measures taken. (Id. art. 15.) The reports are reviewed by a committee of experts and made public. (Id. art. 15, para. 2, art. 16.)

Minority and Regional Languages in Germany

Germany identified the following languages as minority languages within the meaning of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages:

Low German (Plattdeutsch) was designated as a regional language within the meaning of the Charter. It is spoken in the entire territory of Bremen, Hamburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lower Saxony, and Schleswig-Holstein and in parts of Brandenburg, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Saxony-Anhalt.

Legal Protection and Promotion in Germany

Bilingual sign German-Frisian, police station Husum. Photo by Flickr user Arne List. (Jan. 24, 2008). Used under Creative Commons license,

The protection and promotion of regional and minority languages belongs to the cultural sector, an area in which the German states are competent to legislate. Regulations therefore vary from state to state. Most measures focus on the education sector as the best time to learn a language is in early childhood. At the federal level, there is a Commissioner for Matters Related to Ethnic German Resettlers and National Minorities within the Federal Ministry of the Interior who is the central contact person regarding matters related to national minorities and who represents the German government in various contact groups.

The Constitution of Schleswig-Holstein, for example, obligates the state to protect and promote the Danish minority, the Frisian community, as well the German Sinti and Roma (Constitution, art. 6, para. 2). Parents may choose to send their children to a school of a recognized minority. (Id. art. 12, para. 4). In addition, the state protects and promotes language classes for the Frisian and Low German language in public schools. (Id. art. 12, para. 6).

Citizens in the state of Schleswig-Holstein may also communicate with and submit documents to the public administration in Danish, Frisian, or Low German. Additional costs for translations will not be charged. However, Danish and Frisian are restricted to certain parts of the state, whereas Low German may be used in the entire territory of Schleswig-Holstein.

In 1994, the state of Brandenburg passed the Gesetz über die Ausgestaltung der Rechte der Sorben/Wenden im Land Brandenburg (Act on the Rights of the Sorbs/Wends in the State of Brandenburg (SWG)), which, inter alia, encourages people to use the Sorbian language and protects and promotes its use in public life both orally and in writing. People in the ancestral settlement area have a legal right to use the Lower Sorbian language in their dealings with the public administration. (SWG, § 8). The state of Saxony has passed a similar law to protect the rights of the Sorbs.

Furthermore, in some states, there are specific broadcasting time slots on TV and on radio reserved for regional and minority language programs. The Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR)-Staatsvertrag (Central German Broadcasting State Treaty), for example, states that the MDR must take into account the interests of all sections of the population, including minorities. The MDR therefore broadcasts programs in German as well as in Sorbian. Other German states have similar provisions.

That just leaves me to say: Kiek mol wedder in. Bis düsse Dage! (meaning “Come back soon. Goodbye!” in Low German).

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