The ELEN-Catesco conference, co-organized with Òmnium Cultural and supported by the Catalan Government, held on June 15th in Barcelona focused on how European civil society organisations can better protect education in endangered and minoritized languages and strengthen language rights more generally.

The high-level event, held in the splendid medieval setting of the Institut d’Estudis Catalans (IEC), featured the UN Special Rapporteur for Minorities, speakers from the Council of Europe, UNESCO, legal experts, and ELEN member organisations.

Opening the conference, ELEN Secretary-General Davyth Hicks outlined the context for the event describing how the EU for over 30 years had ceased to make any meaningful progress in protecting European endangered and minoritised languages despite having the support for linguistic diversity as a key European Value.

ELEN President Elin Haf Gruffydd Jones welcomed participants in Catalan and underlined the importance of the conference for minoritised languages across Europe. She was joined on stage by Òmnium Cultural President, Xavier Antich, who quoted from the song “Acorar” by Pau Riba, which describes how words are the soul of a people, adding how creativity, art and culture inspires people to push for progress.

Maria Corominas from the IEC, and representing Catesco, welcomed everyone to the Institute, and Adam Majó from the Catalan Government underlined the need for people to work beyond their everyday “linguistic bubbles.”

Education in endangered and minoritized languages – the international institutions.
The opening panel featured international institutions who discussed support for education in minoritized languages. UN Special Rapporteur for Minorities, Nicolas Levrat, opened the session outlining the lack of binding rights to minoritized language education and how a current challenge was over how the UN’s multilateral system had switched from developing new laws to proposing “goals”.

Lusine Kharatyan, representing the Committee of Experts of the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, discussed the Charter in detail noting some successes with the development of immersion education. She also illustrated how the Charter had influenced some territories to develop their own language measures using the example of local charters adopted in France and Covenants in the Netherlands. Ms Kharatyan also outlined potential areas for improvement such as the more active involvement of speakers in all stages of implementation, more awareness raising activities, a more focus for recommendations for immediate action.

Petra Roter, President of the Advisory Committee of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for National Minorities, noted the timely importance of the conference given the range of threats to minoritized language education in several states in Europe and outlined some of the successes in the development of immersion education in several European states, for example, with Sámi language nests.

Tamara Martí Casado, representing UNESCO, discussed some of the wide range of activities the organization was undertaking to support minoritized and indigenous languages globally, referring to the International Decade for Indigenous Languages and their work in capacity building and awareness raising, and encouraged ELEN member organisations to get involved with UNESCO’s work in this area.

In her presentation ELEN President, Elin Haf Gruffydd Jones, said that. “Immersion education in the minoritized language is, in most cases, the best way to achieve the goal that young people become fully bilingual. This is a matter of equality of opportunity for all as well as working towards the sustainability of our planet’s linguistic diversity.

“Schools and learning centres should not only be ‘breathing spaces’ for minoritised languages, but also ‘energy spaces’, where the dynamics of language acquisition, language use, cultural production and social cohesion are played out. Families and the community should be at the heart of immersion schools, as we aim to transform our societies and the future of our languages.”

Education in minoritized languages – the civil society viewpoint
Panel one featured a range of ELEN member organizations who discussed current problems on the ground for the languages that they represented. Opening the session Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin (ELEN Vice-President – Fis an Phobail/ Glór na Móna) focused on Irish-medium education in the north, where, despite the successes with language recovery, there was still the need for equality “because Irish Medium Education has been marginalised for so long. 60% of our schools are still in temporary accommodation and we have huge issues around teacher provision.”

Representing the Frisian language, Mirjam Vellinga (ELEN Vice-President – Afûk) discussed current Dutch Government support for Frisian language education summing up the approach as one of “benign neglect”. Frisian is taught as a subject in schools but there is to date no  Frisian only immersion education.

Speaking on behalf of the Diwan Breton immersion schools, Anna-Vari Chapalain, a former director of the school network and representing Kevre Breizh, described how the students at Diwan schools continue to achieve the highest grades of all schools in the French state. However, despite this ongoing success and proven effectiveness in ensuring a young generation of Breton speakers, the French state continues with policies designed to undermine Breton language recovery. This has been seen most recently when, in response to the Molac Law, the French Constitutional Court ruled that Breton immersion education was unconstitutional. While a subsequent “circulaire” from the department of Education stated that this was not the case the overarching problem remains that Breton immersion education has no legal base and no legislation to protect it.

Elsa Quintas, Vice-President of A Mesa pola Normalización Lingüística , highlighted the difficulties and lack of protection facing Galician, despite it being an official language. “There are no linguistic immersion policies in Galician. On the contrary: there is only linguistic immersion in Spanish.” She added that: “Education is not acting as an agent guaranteeing learning and competence in Galician. No measures are taken to ensure that children finish their compulsory studies with oral and written skills in Galician.”

Idurre Eskisabel (ELEN Vice-President, Secretary-General of Kontseilua) discussed the situation for Basque language education in the three territories that make up the Basque Country, she noted how provision for Basque-medium education was predominant in Euskadi, yet restricted in Nafarroa and the northern Basque Country. “Years of experience have shown that immersion is one of the important keys, certainly the most important, in the process of recovering the Basque language. In the case of Euskal Herria there is a great difference in results between the territories where immersion has become widespread and those that have not. It is one of the most important tools to provide Basque language to children from non-Basque-speaking families.”

Marc Guevara (Plataforma per la Llengua), discussed Catalan in Catalonia. He pointed to “the strategy orchestrated by the Spanish State to wear down the school in Catalan,” adding that, “there is a lack of resources of all kinds, especially in provision for newly arrived students, and it is very important to train teachers in language, in linguistic habits and in sociolinguistics so that they understand what linguistic immersion is and apply it. So far this has not happened.”

Catalina Bibiloni (Obra Cultural Balear) focused on the combination of problems in the Illes Balears one of which is a PP Government hostile to the offiical language of the territory. The existing model of language immersion has had very positive results. “It is a successful model that guarantees that at the end of the compulsory studies, the students master both languages” However, the model is now under threat because of new PP Government proposals that will bring in linguistic segregation, which will damage language maintenance as well as undermine social cohesion.

Núria Betoret (ACPV) described the progress that was being made in Valencia with its language teaching models but alerted the conference to a new set of attacks against the language since the new PP/Vox Government took office. In particular she discussed the threat posed by the Llei Rovira (Educational Freedom Law), set to be voted on at the end of June, which will effectively undermine the teaching of Valencian, the official language of Valencia, and which is widely seen as causing chaos in schools, undermining language rights and children’s rights, contravening numerous international treaties ratified by Spain, as well as being unconstitutional.

The afternoon session commenced with a presentation of the Declaration of Linguistic Rights by CIEMEN President David Minoves. The Declaration sets out the standards expected by civil society to better protect their languages and influenced the 2016 Donostia Protocol standard-setting tool which has been adopted by some councils in the Basque Country. CIEMEN called for a new world conference on linguistic rights and to continue the work of having the Declaration adopted by the international institutions.

Developing Adequate Legal Protection for Education in Minoritised Languages.
Panel Two, moderated by Elena Jimenez from Òmnium Cultural, gathered legal experts to discuss how ELEN and its member organisations could deal with the ongoing attacks and threats against minoritised language education outlined in Panel One. Catalan expert Eva Pons opened the session describing the need for protection of the Catalan model to be guaranteed and emphasized the competence of the Catalan Government to define the linguistic model. She described the legal architecture of the Catalan model, the objectives to which it responds, its evolution and the legal defense of that model in the State framework, while taking into account a multilevel perspective.

Former UN Special Rapporteur for Minorities, Fernand de Varennes, gave a word of caution over using the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) as an avenue for litigation given recent rulings concerning Latvia and minority language rights. He suggested that the way forward would be to identify the nature of the bias against the rights of linguistic minorities and to proceed with caution considering these rulings. However, he suggested that ELEN and its member organisations start to build a fund and a team to look at using strategic litigation as a tactic and to identify the “low-lying fruit” where court cases could be successful.

Benet Salellas discussed how ECtHR case law, referring to the recent Latvian ruling, can be applicable to the Catalan case, how Catalan and Spanish are both official languages in Catalonia but are not equal, and how sociolinguistics helps in the construction of litigation strategies in defence of Catalan.

János Fiala, spoke about his experiences as a litigator bringing cases to the ECtHR discussing what worked and what didn’t work. He discussed cases that had had an impact on language rights and recommended taking small steps, in terms of ongoing litigation, towards overarching objectives in establishing rights as it was unlikely to be achieved in one go.

Conference Recommendations.
The final panel acted to sum up the day’s proceedings and to present recommendations and a roadmap on the way forward. Marina Gay from Catesco summarized each panel highlighting the main points made.

ELEN Secretary-General Davyth Hicks discussed a set of recommendations and a roadmap. The recommendations comprised ELEN’s long term objectives such as an EU Regulation to protect endangered and minoritized European languages.

However, as a result of the findings from the conference and with the input from member organisations, he noted how ELEN must now expand its operations. “Today’s discussions, however, have convinced us that we will need to do more than campaign for the measures listed at the EU and international level.

“Our member organisations have illustrated clearly just how important and vital education in our languages, especially immersion education, is to ensuring language maintenance and recovery.

“The original concept behind this conference was to examine how education in minoritised languages is vulnerable to judicial and sometimes legal attack. When we consider that immersion education is vital for language recovery and maintenance we, as a NGO, cannot accept that something so vital for our languages is vulnerable to any kind of attack.

“At the same time, we’ve seen 30 years of inertia at the European level and the abject failure of the EU and its Member-States to act to ensure adequate protection for our languages. Despite it being a European Value, as defined by the EU, to support and protect its linguistic diversity.

“In addition, we have to constantly bear in mind that most of the languages represented by ELEN are defined as endangered. We don’t have indefinite amounts of time, so I would underline that there is a need for urgent action in order to secure better protection.

“Therefore, today’s conference marks a sea-change in how we approach our advocacy work. While we will continue to campaign for the European and international level proposals, we must also take back the initiative where ELEN and our member organizations develop a programme of strategic litigation in order to secure collective language rights.

“We will hold a strategy meeting with our member organisations and lawyers to set the path for future litigation on behalf of our languages. Actions will include setting up a fund for litigation, building a legal team, and research on how we can best succeed.”

In his conclusions Prof. F. Xavier Vila, the Catalan Government Secretary for language policy, noted overall progress compared to 40 years ago and the huge changes in the political and legal framework, and how academia needed to be more practicial in terms of how language policy is developed and implemented. Adding to the ELEN proposals he said that it was important that ELEN co-ordinated with supportive governments on litigation so as to maximise the beneficial effects.

The ELEN President closed the conference thanking all the speakers and the co-organisers and, in the context of the ongoing campaigns for European minoritized languages, ended with an uplifting quote from Raymond Williams: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”

The conference outcomes, recommendations and next steps will be discussed at the ELEN General Assembly which will be held in Bilbao in the Basque Country on November 8th to10th and hosted by Kontseilua.

ELEN wishes to thank Marina Gay, Geda Requena and Eulalia Sanz (Catesco) and Elia Varela, Sergi Calopa, Elena Jimenez (Omnium Cultural), for their expert assistance in organising the event, as well as for hosting the Steering Committee meeting and official reception. In addition, ELEN thanks the Catalan Government for their support. (Eurolang 2024)

Photo album from the conference and the official reception.