Babel Tower

The European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages in Slovakia

The case of Hungarian, Ruthenian, Ukrainian and Romani in preschool and primary education

21 minutes to read
Academic paper
Monika Nemcová
09/10/2017

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is a language policy document designed by the Council of Europe in 1992. Its main aim is to create conditions for the maintenance and development of regional or minority languages. This paper deals with the implementation of the Charter in the Slovak Republic.

Focus on Hungarian, Ruthenian, Ukrainian and Romani in preschool and primary education

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (hereafter referred to as the Charter) is a language policy document, which was accepted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 1992; it came into effect in 1998 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Slovakia, 2015). The main aim of the Charter is to “create conditions for maintenance and development of regional or minority languages in the fields of education, judicial authorities, administrative authorities and public services, media, culture, economic and social life and transfrontier exchanges” (ibid). The Charter has been signed by 33 countries and ratified by 25 of them (Council of Europe, 2016).

In this article, the Charter as a language policy document, as well as its implementation by the Slovak Republic, one of the signatories, is analyzed. 

Until November 2015, the Charter covered nine regional or minority languages and after this date, two more have been added (The Slovak Spectator, 2015). These languages differ in the level of protection they should receive according to the Charter. The aim of this paper is to use the monitoring and evaluation tools of the Charter to assess its implementation in the fields of preschool and primary education. The measures to promote regional or minority languages in these fields can be found in Part III, Article 8 of the Charter. The focus of the analysis will be on Hungarian, Ruthenian, Ukrainian and Romani.

Policy-making  and monitoring the results

Language policies, or policies in general, are usually created and implemented in order to solve or overcome a certain problem, or to attend to a certain need. The aim of a language policy is to achieve set results, which can also be called outcomes (Grin, 2003). Between the definition of a problem and the assessment of the outcomes of its solution, however, a whole policy process takes place. Although this process generally involves the same set of steps, they do not necessarily have to follow one another in a fixed order (Gass and Fu, 2013). Walker (2000) makes mention of eight steps in the general policy process. These are to identify the problem, identify the objectives of the new policy, decide on criteria with which to evaluate alternative policies, select the alternative policies to be evaluated, analyse each alternative, compare the alternatives in terms of projected costs and effects, implement the chosen alternative and monitor and to evaluate the results.

As the Charter is a policy document, specifically regarding language policy, it can be assumed that its creation and implementation was not at all random, but rather the result of a policy process. 

The problem that the Charter wants to attend to is the possible extinction of regional or minority languages, historically existing in Europe. The objective of the Charter is found in its Preamble, and it is “the protection of the historical regional or minority languages of Europe, some of which are in danger of eventual extinction” (Council of Europe, 1992, p. 1). Grin (2003) further specifies that “the desired outcome of the policy measures to be adopted under the Charter ought to be the continuing vitality of those languages, meaning that they ought to be known – and used” (ibid, p. 41).

The author looks into what this level of vitality can be like. He uses Fishman’s graded intergenerational disruption scale (GIDS), consisting of eight stages “on a scale of the ‘threatenedness’ of a language, where stage 8 represents the highest, and 1 the lowest degree of threat” (ibid). Grin (2003) comes to the conclusion that “(s)ince the Charter’s aim is to safeguard the existence of languages in the long run, this minimum can be defined as restoring and maintaining a self-priming mechanism of language reproduction” (ibid, p. 42). This objective corresponds to Stage 5 of Fishman’s scale, which allows a language to transfer across generations, and it “includes regional or minority language literacy in the home, school and community, but such literacy remains restricted to the confines of the community, that is, it enjoys virtually no official recognition and support” (ibid, p. 41).

The creation of the Charter as an actual document was a long process, the origins of which can be traced back to as early as 1948, when the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, which stated the principle that human rights cannot be denied based on language (Grin, 2003). Thus, it can be inferred that the finally chosen format of the Charter, which was preceded by documents such as Recommendation 928 (1981) on Educational and Cultural Problems of Minority Languages and Dialects in Europe, Towards a Charter of European regional and minority languages (1984), Regional and Minority Languages in Europe – Summary of the information gathered (1984) and various drafts of the Charter itself, was the selected alternative after evaluating other alternatives.

Finally, on November 5, 1992, the Charter was ready for signing by members of the Council of Europe (Council of Europe, 1992). The document consists of a Preamble and five parts, regarding respectively: General provisions, Objectives and principles, Measures to promote the use of regional or minority languages in public life, and Application of the Charter and Final provisions (ibid). When signing the Charter, each party “undertakes to apply a minimum of thirty-five paragraphs or sub-paragraphs chosen from among the provisions of Part III of the Charter” (Council of Europe, 1992, p. 2), which is the part comprising “(m)easures to promote the use of regional or minority languages in public life” (ibid, p. 4). The Article 8 of the Part III covers the field of education and consists of two parts. Application of their chosen subparts on the regional or minority languages in Slovakia will be evaluated in this paper.

Within the Council of Europe it is the Committee of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which monitors the implementation of the Charter in the countries which ratified it. This Committee helps by: “where necessary, making recommendations for improving legislation, policy and practices” (Council of Europe, 2004) and its role is: “where appropriate, to encourage the Party to gradually reach a higher level of commitment” (ibid). Therefore, the policymaker, which is the Council of Europe, has set up tools to monitor and evaluate the results of language policy. So far, Slovakia has submitted four state periodical reports and has received Committee of Experts' evaluation reports, as well as Committee of Ministers' Recommendations for the first three. These are going to be analyzed with a focus on the field of preschool and primary education in four languages covered by the Charter - Hungarian, Ruthenian, Ukrainian and Romani.

The Charter is, thus, a language policy document on an international scale, the implementation of which followed certain steps of the policy-making process.

The outcomes of this language policy are continuously being monitored in the countries involved, as well as suggestions being made for possible improvements of the implementation.

The Charter in Slovakia

Minority groups and minority languages in Slovakia

The 2011 census conducted in Slovakia showed that 80.7 percent of 5.379 million residents have the Slovak nationality, 8.5 percent are Hungarian, 2.0 percent Roma, and the rest is composed of other nationalities, such as Czech, Ruthenian or Ukrainian, while the nationality of 7 percent of the residents was not determined (The Slovak Republic, 2014). In Slovakia, nationality is a term labelling “belonging of a person to a nation, nationality or ethnic minority” (ibid). There is an implicit differentiation between nationality and citizenship, where “(t)he former is in essence a cultural concept which binds people on the basis of shared identity (...) while citizenship is a political concept deriving from people’s relationship to the state” (McCrone and Kiely, 2000, p. 25). The participants of the census filled in their nationality according to their own decision about belonging to a certain group mentioned above and it did not have to be consistent with their mother tongue (The Slovak Republic, 2014). Since the previous census in 2001, the percentages of minority populations have varied a few percent and the population of people whose nationality was not found by the census has risen by 5.9 percent (ibid).

The national composition of Slovakia suggests that there can be a significant number of people who use minority languages, even though their national belonging does not necessarily imply this. With regards tothe question about mother tongue, the most common mother tongues except for Slovak were Hungarian, Roma and Ruthenian (Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic, 2011).

The Charter and its adjustments

During the discussions about signing the Charter, the Slovak National Party refused to support the signing of the document, because it had some advantages for the Hungarian minority (Sme.sk, 2001). However, after several negotiations, it was agreed that the Charter would be signed. Slovakia signed the Charter on February, 20, 2001 and it was ratified by the Slovak president on July 20, 2001. The Charter came into action on January 1, 2002. The country made several statements regarding the document, in which it highlights that regional and minority languages can be developed without harm to the usage of the state language, which is Slovak.

Slovakia also specified Part B of Article I, which defines “territory in which the regional or minority language is used” (Council of Europe, 1992, p. 2) as “the geographical area in which the said language is the mode of expression of a number of people justifying the adoption of the various protective and promotional measures provided for in this Charter” (ibid). Slovakia established that such territory “shall refer to the municipalities in which the citizens of the Slovak Republic belonging to national minorities form at least 20% of the population” (The Slovak Republic, 2012).

The country chose nine languages to be considered as regional or minority languages protected under the Charter, including Bulgarian, Czech, Croatian, Hungarian, German, Polish, Roma, Ruthenian and Ukrainian (ibid). These were divided into three groups. The first group contains Hungarian, the second Ruthenian and Ukrainian and the third other languages (ibid). The minimum number of provisions to be chosen by the countries which ratified the Charter is 35 and Slovakia chose 49 to 53 provisions.

Preschool and primary education system in Slovakia

Slovakia applied different categories of education provisions to the three categories of languages mentioned above. Article 8, paragraph 1, parts a and b regard preschool and primary education (Council of Europe, 1992). In Slovakia, preschool education usually starts at the age of 3 and continues until the age of 6. While the first few years of preschool education are optional, the last is compulsory. The aim of preschool education is to “support universal development of child personality, balance differences in the level of social-cultural environment and development of children, and prepare them for compulsory education” (Institute of Information and Prognoses of Education, 2005, p. 21). At the age of 6, children enter primary school, which has two stages. The first stage is grades 1-4, up to the age of 10, and the second stage comprises grades 5-9, generally up to the age of 15. Small schools usually only teach pupils in the first stage after which they then move on to larger schools, in order to complete the second stage.

Advantages of using minority languages in education

One may pose the question why minority children should use their mother tongue as the language they receive instruction in, instead of the language of the majority, when this language is the one they will more likely use in higher levels of education, as well as later on in their professional lives. Besides argumentats regarding human rights, respect for minorities and protection of language diversity, education in a minority language also offers advantages in the learning process.

Numerous researchers show that “the mother tongue is an essential foundation for all learning” (Kosonen, 2005, p. 90)

Advantages of education in the mother tongue, at least partly in the first years of schooling, are shown in research by Bialystok, Luk and Kwan (2005), Baker (2001) and Cummins (2000). Bialystok, Luk and Kwan (2005) revealed how bilingualism contributes to children’s early acquisition of literacy. It enhances “a general understanding of reading and its basis in a symbolic system of print” (ibid, p. 17) and has “the potential for transfer of reading principles across the languages” (ibid). Based on the results of international researchers, Kosonen (2005) argues that learning in the mother tongue doesn't hinder learning of a second language;it actually helps in learning it. Skills are transferred from the first to the second language. Furthermore, using the mother tongue as a language of instruction enables parents to participate more in their children’s education (ibid). Thus, learning in the mother tongue does not only help in protecting minority languages from extinction, but it also aids the learning process on an individual level.

Application of the Charter in preschool and primary education

Hungarian

In the field of preschool and primary education, Slovakia chose parts a (i) and b (i) for Hungarian, stating that:

“With regard to education, the Parties undertake, within the territory in which such languages are used, according to the situation of each of these languages, and without prejudice to the teaching of the official language(s) of the State:

  • a i to make available pre-school education in the relevant regional or minority languages
  • b i to make available primary education in the relevant regional or minority languages” (Council of Europe, 1992 , p. 4)

In the latest report of the Committee of Experts on the Charter (2013) on the situation in Slovakia, there were no comments on preschool education in Hungarian, as this issue was not raised in the previous reports (ibid). According to the latest data of the Slovak Centre of Scientific and Technical Information, up to September 15, 2015, there were 72 state kindergartens with Slovak and Hungarian as languages of instruction and 262 with Hungarian as a medium of instruction (Slovak Centre of Scientific and Technical Information, 2015). These catered to more than 8,700 children, which is more than 6 percent of children attending state kindergartens (ibid). Most of these kindergartens were located in regions where more than 20 percent of residents belong to the Hungarian national minority.

However, the Committee commented on part b (i) of the charter, where it considered the undertaking fulfilled, but made several observations. One of them is the risk of closing down small schools, which affects all such schools regardless the language of instruction. Although the number of Hungarian-language schools decreases, “the minority is interested in maintaining at least the current school network” (Council of Europe, 2013, p. 14). The Committee also stated that it “encourages the Slovak authorities to take special measures supporting access to primary education in Hungarian for all the pupils interested” (ibid). On this, the Slovak authorities reacted in the following state report (2014) that in practice, the democratic right of the parents to choose the language of instruction is being applied and fulfilled and persons belonging to the national minorities can get education according to their demands. However, this reaction still considers only the members of the national minority, and does not consider “all the pupils interested” (Council of Europe, 2013, p. 14), who could be either from the majority population, or from other minorities. Although it was expected that this issue would be further addressed in the new report of the Committee (2016), the subject was not discussed there. All in all, the undertakings of Slovakia in Article 8 with respect to Hungarian language can be considered as fulfilled for the time being.

Ruthenian

Slovakia chose parts a (ii) and b (ii) from Article 8 paragraph 1 for Ruthenian and Ukrainian. These points state that the state undertakes “to make available a substantial part of pre-school education in the relevant regional or minority languages” (Council of Europe, 1992, p. 4) and “to make available a substantial part of primary education in the relevant regional or minority languages” (ibid). In the case of Ruthenian, the Committee discussed several issues regarding education in general and also preschool and primary education specifically.

In the report (2013), the Committee explains that as the Charter requires authorities to make available education in regional or minority languages, “the offer needs to precede the demand, i.e. that the education has to be organised before the authorities are approached by parents or pupils” (Council of Europe, 2013, p. 30) and that the state should take on an active role in informing parents about the availability of such schooling. Therefore, the often cited argument about lack of demand for education in a minority language cannot be considered a valid excuse.

On the preschool and primary school level, the Committee evaluated the undertaking as partly fulfilled and it “urged the Slovak authorities to take measures to ensure a substantial part of pre-school [as well as primary] […] education in Ruthenian and to take care that there is a continuous offer at all levels of education” (ibid, p. 30). Currently, there are only one primary school and one preschool with Ruthenian as language of instruction, and another primary school with kindergarten which has Slovak and Ruthenian as languages of instruction. These schools and preschools are located in small villages and the total number of their pupils is less than 60. Therefore, they are at risk of being closed down. There are a few other schools where Ruthenian is taught as an elective course.

After receiving criticism from the Committee of Experts, there have been some measures taken in Slovakia to support the Ruthenian language in general. In 2013, a new civic association Kolysočka - Kolíska* was established, offering informal education in Ruthenian (The Slovak Republic, 2014). One of the aims of the association is to raise interest in primary and secondary education in Ruthenian. The possible results of these efforts probably will not be visible immediately.

However, informal education can be an effective way of showing the value of the language, which can lead to raising interest in opportunities of education in the language.

Ukrainian

In the 3rd periodical report (2012), Slovakia reported that there are five kindergartens with Ukrainian as the medium of instruction and three with Slovak and Ukrainian languages. Furthermore, six primary schools with Ukrainian as the medium of instruction were reported and one with Slovak and Ukrainian. In the report of the Committee of Experts (2013), the decreasing number of such preschools and primary schools was criticized, when at the same time in some of the kindergartens, despite their focus on Ukrainian, Slovak is used more. In the report the country was also asked to provide information on which subjects were taught in Ukrainian in primary education. The two undertakings were evaluated as partly fulfilled.

In the following 4th periodical report (2014), Slovakia only mentioned that all subjects are taught in Ukrainian in the first stage of primary education, and in the second stage, there is a subject called ‘Ukrainian language and literature’, and subjects such as music and arts are also taught in Ukrainian. What Slovakia failed to mention was that the number of educational institutions that teach in Ukranian is declining. As of September 2015, there were five state kindergartens and two schools with Ukrainian instruction and one school with Slovak and Ukrainian (Slovak Centre of Scientific and Technical Information, 2015).

It can be said that regarding Ukrainian language, Slovakia does not sufficiently focus on making education in this language available and the authorities do not adequately inform parents and pupils about its availability and do not encourage them enough to participate in it.

Romani

Roma, or Romani belongs to the third group of languages protected by the Charter in Slovakia. Article 8, part one a (iii) and b (iii) apply to this language, which state that the country should “apply one of the measures provided for under i and ii above at least to those pupils whose families so request and whose number is considered sufficient” (Council of Europe, 1992, p. 4) and “provide, within primary education, for the teaching of the relevant regional or minority languages as an integral part of the curriculum” (ibid).

Slovakia is one of the countries with the largest concentration of Romani speakers (Matras, 2006)

In the 2011 census, more than 112,000 people indicated that Romani was their mother tongue (Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic, 2011). Matras (2005) refers to a popular misconception about the multiplicity of the Romani language. He claims that although it is traditionally an oral language (Matras, 2006), it is “a fully-fledged language which possesses its own extensive everyday lexicon as well as grammar and a sound system” (Matras, 2005, p. 3).

The report of the Committee from 2013 states that “(t)he network of kindergartens currently does not include any pre-school education in the Roma language as the language of education. It is not possible to provide pre-school education in the Roma language also for capacity reasons” (p. 117). Furthermore, the non-interest in using this language in instruction from the parents’ side has been present (ibid). The parents often have been under the impression that Romani has no practical value and no perspective, especially on the job market (Bariová, 2013; Webnoviny.sk, 2013). Here, it is evident, that the authorities did not emphasize benefits of learning in the mother tongue enough and they were not able to promote this message to the parents and to Roma officials. Instead, they see it as a possibility for exclusion, rather than inclusion.

Following this criticism, Slovakia launched a national project in 2013, called “Inclusive model of education on the pre-primary level of the school system” (The Slovak Republic, 2014). The project was aimed at kindergartens where at least 8 percent of children came from marginalized Roma communities, or which were located in a municipality where members of such communities lived (ibid). The central aim of the project was to increase the quality of professional competences of pedagogical and other specialists, who participate in the education of the children mentioned above, in order to support their social inclusion at the preschool level (ibid).

In total, 110 kindergartens and 161 pedagogical assistants, of which 80 percent spoke Romani, participated in the project (Ministry of Education, Science and Research of the Slovak Republic, 2015). However, this project, partly financed by the European Union, ended in November 2015. In the evaluation of the project, it was stated that the project “significantly helped (...) in children’s attendance of the preschools and communication of children in Slovak language” (ibid). Eva Sobinkovičová, who was involved with the project, said that it is necessary to continue these activities and to inform the Roma parents about the importance of preschool education (ibid). As of October 2015, it was planned that the project would continue in the next period (ibid). Judging from the website of the project, it seems that it is currently inactive.

From January 2013 till the end of 2014, another project took place, named “Investment in early childhood – support of social innovation and integration of the Roma“ (The Slovak Republic, 2014), which aimed to support the quality of preschool education, to involve mothers in this process, to decrease the language barrier, as well as to develop cognitive abilities not only of children, but also of mothers (ibid). This project involved seven facilitators, more than 300 mothers and more than 500 children and was supported by almost 750 thousand euros (Ministry of the Interior of the Slovak Republic, 2015).

Although these projects may have had useful and adequate ideas behind them and their results may have been positive, they were temporary. Change in the issues of using one’s mother tongue as a method of social inclusion is a long-term commitment, for which Slovakia should attempt to develop suitable tools. What could possibly be a part of these tools is educating parents about the advantages of using the mother tongue as a base for learning the state language, as well as the development of literacy.

Different languages, different policies?

Although  the Hungarian, Ruthenian, Ukrainian and Romani languages have in common that they are minority languages in Slovakia and that they are, on different levels, protected by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, there are also significant differences among them. In the case of Hungarian and Ukrainian as minority languages, they are majority languages in the neighbouring countries. Therefore, although the number of schools in which Ukranian is the language of choice in Slovakia is decreasing, the language as such is not threatened. On the other hand, the danger of becoming extinct is what Ruthenian is facing in a scope of 30-50 years (Rundesová, 2015). The importance of schooling in Ruthenian is not only about the availability of education in children’s mother tongue, but also about the revitalization of the language.

Romani is, again, different from the previous three languages in the context of Slovakia. As members of the Roma minority often live in marginalized conditions, the inequalities are further deepened within the education system, where children face insufficient knowledge of the medium of instruction - Slovak. In this case, education in Romani can be seen as a way to not to hinder learning of Slovak, but as a helpful tool in developing skills in this language and overcoming educational difficulties.

Generally, based on the last two Slovak periodical reports, as well as the last report of the Committee,

It seems that Slovakia is lacking the understanding of offer preceding demand in minority language education.

Furthermore, the authorities do not actively inform parents about benefits of minority language-medium education and thus, notions of the minority languages as having no value in education and further perspective are widely spread. In this paper, several advantages of such education have been pointed out. These are, except for maintaining the country’s language diversity in order to protect cultural heritage, for example, transfer of skills from one language to another, better development of literacy and ability of the parents to participate in their children’s educational process. Slovak authorities should try to develop a comprehensible strategy of putting these benefits across to members of the minority groups and encourage them in participating in minority language-medium schooling, at least on the level of preschool and the first stage of primary education.

The Charter as a language policy document is a long-term commitment, which has set up monitoring and evaluation tools to supervise the outcomes, offering regular feedback exchanges. However, the Charter is not a document, undertakings of which would be enforceable and the feedback of the Committee of Experts has a form of recommendations and appeals, which countries may choose to take up on or not do so. Having ratified the Charter presupposes interest in the issue of promotion of regional or minority languages.

The monitoring cycles of three years give the participating parties time to implement solutions to issues pointed out by the Committee, which, in case of preschool and primary education in minority languages in Slovakia, has not been fully fulfilled in the last two monitoring cycles, reports of which were created in 2012 and 2014. It can be seen that the country did not make full use of the Committee’s recommendations in order to enhance the situation of minority language education.

What could be improved from the side of the Committee, is the form of their recommendations. It would be interesting if they included examples of measures taken in the field of education in other countries, which they consider successful, as an inspiration. This could help the responsible authorities with development of long-term projects promoting the usage of minority languages in education.

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*Kolysočka - Kolíska = The word cradle in Ruthenian and Slovak.