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Report on indigenous languages published by BIPA Committee

Added 16-May-2023

An inquiry from the Environment and Social Committee of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly (BIPA) has found that providing public services in indigenous minority languages (IML) such as Welsh and Irish is vital for the visibility of IMLs and the sustainability of language communities.

Download the full report here.

BIPA jurisdictions have more than ten IMLs including Cornish, Welsh, Irish and Scots.

The Committee heard about a range of approaches from the governments of the BIPA jurisdictions to ensure the provision of IML-medium public services. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but public authorities across these islands should cooperate closely in deciding the most appropriate measures to support this aspect of IML provision.

Indigenous minority languages face a multitude of challenges, and BIPA jurisdictions have introduced various policies in response. The Committee found that some have been more successful than others.

What is clear is that a top-down application of language policy will only go half-way to supporting IMLs with such challenges. Public authorities must engage communities wherever possible to determine the best approach for supporting their languages.

Our inquiry demonstrated the many and varied dynamics affecting indigenous minority languages in these islands. Languages are at different stages of development, have different numbers of speakers and play different roles in the economies and societies of the BIPA jurisdictions. Evaluating them in the round enables us to understand why some languages seem in better health than others.

Committee chair Lord Alf Dubs said, “If our respective governments are serious about the revival and or expansion of indigenous languages, there is a need for increased support for them in all BIPA jurisdictions. In TV, radio and the provision of public services in indigenous minority languages, these languages need to be given the space to live. Policies to support them should not just be imposed from above.

We’ve heard how all of this can spark pride in communities and an interest in one’s own history and provide a gateway to the acquisition of further languages. All of these will provide a net benefit to our societies.”

With the equal status of Ulster-Scots and Irish under the Identity and Language Act and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, it is hoped that both languages will thrive in Northern Ireland and Ireland. BIPA is well-placed to continue to monitor the health of indigenous minority languages as they continue to enrich the cultural mix of the BIPA jurisdictions. A focus on the rich culture of these languages underlines their vital contribution to our shared history and the connections that tie us together across these islands.”

The inquiry summary of conclusions and recommendations

Legal protection for indigenous minority languages and policies to support their growth have proved beneficial for IMLs across the BIPA jurisdictions.

Legal frameworks work best where they stress the shared cultural benefit to all communities of supporting IMLs and, in doing so, enable political parties to reach consensus on language policy. BIPA jurisdictions should be mindful of this message when drafting legislation to protect IMLs.

If indigenous minority languages are to thrive and prosper, policy-makers must view them as living, working means of building communities. They enable speakers and learners to shop, use public services, engage with society and learn about their cultural heritage.

In drafting legislation and policy on IMLs, the governments of the BIPA jurisdictions should consider wherever possible how best to support TV, radio, literature and music. Popular, professionally produced content creates pride in indigenous languages and encourages more people to learn them.

Learning indigenous minority languages as a first or second language brings significant benefits to primary, secondary and tertiary-level students. It encourages students to engage with the history and culture of their communities, and strengthens their ability to acquire other languages.

Students should be able to learn any indigenous minority language that they choose. IMLs now have robust legal protection across the BIPA jurisdictions, but the languages will not reach their potential unless governments provide sufficient backing for IML-medium education.

Providing public services in indigenous minority languages is vital for the visibility of IMLs and for the sustainability of language communities. But it is clear that users are less likely to request services in their languages if it is too difficult to do so.

Although Welsh and Irish are studied by so many school pupils, real efforts must still be made to translate this provision into increased numbers of speakers. The targets introduced in Wales and Ireland – including the aim to reach 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050 – recognise the challenge of supporting indigenous minority languages and the need to ensure political buy-in towards that end. 


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