25th March: 6.00pm

As we speak:
Managing bilingual societies in Europe.

Before Brexit, the EU was home to over 60 languages spread in 28 countries. Most European countries, if not all, exhibit a multilingual society: the management of which differs dramatically.

In this discussion, we want to review some issues that may arise when handling multilingual regions and advise on how to preserve linguistic and cultural heritage. In the past, assimilation and repression in the name of national unity seem to have been the norm. In some cases, this sadly still applies. In recent history however, most European countries have taken some steps towards an inclusive society. Which strategies are really effective? Which ones ensure true equality between majority and minority? Which ones are exacerbating tensions?

The linguistic panorama of Europe is diverse: whilst most languages evolved from Proto-Indo-European, and this includes Greek, Germanic, Romance, Celtic and Slavic languages, other language families are present as well, such as Uralic languages (e.g. Finnish and Hungarian) and Basque, whose origin is still debated. Overseas territories add diversity with for instance Austronesian languages spoken in the Pacific and in the Indian Ocean. On the continent, borders have moved numerous times and have been constantly reshaped for centuries: territories were ceased after wars, others were acquired or annexed. Those geographical considerations were mostly strategic, there was little or no consideration to the population that lived in the area and to the language(s) they spoke. Thus, people found themselves trapped within the borders of a country that they did not perceive as their own, and of which they did not know the language. Those people are called national minorities. Different countries have applied different approaches to the management of minorities and to respond to the challenges of multilingualism.

We will present two cases that we are familiar with: Gascogne in France and South Tyrol in Italy. The managements provided by the French government and the local government of South Tyrol differ drastically and eventually lead to different results.

Following the French Revolution of 1789, the new state sought to create a movement of convergence to ensure that the riddance of the monarchy would not lead to regions drifting apart and moving on separately. A report presented to the government in 1794 revealed that one out of five French citizens did not speak the language used in Paris. This discovery was seen as an alarming issue and France has subsequently worked towards the eradication of its languages and dialects, declaring monolingualism the norm for a powerful country. In 1992, the Constitution is amended: the language of the République is French. Through a process we can scientifically label ‘glottophagy’, the French language ate into languages such as Gascon. Indeed, with roughly 250,000 speakers, the UNESCO declared the regional language ‘at risk’. With a Constitution that does not recognise minority and regional languages, the situation of Gascon is helpless. Could France have done better? Looking at the situation in Italy, we can assume there was another solution that would not have been as damaging.

Italy has a very diversified linguistic panorama: in the country there are indeed twelve different languages (belonging to the big families of Germanic, Albanian, Greek, Neo-Latin and Slavic) that are recognised by law as official minority idioms of the state. Among these, the most interesting case happens to be South Tyrol. Or better, Alto Adige/Süd Tirol. The double toponym is not by chance, since people speak predominantly German. The region has experienced a history of struggle and resistance in order to preserve the German identity. Previously part of the Habsburg Empire, South Tyrol was annexed to the Reign of Italy in 1919. During Fascism, the minority suffered from huge repression and attempts to erase the local language and culture. After the war, Italy decided to redeem past wrongs and gave South Tyrol a special autonomous status, so that they could decide better for their population. And South Tyrol has proven to be a star at it: the strategy adopted by the region was to apply a complete and irrepressible bilingualism to eliminate social tension, reconciliate the conflict-ridden society and ensure equal rights to all individual.

It is evident that the South Tyrolean model of autonomy and bilingualism has proved to be one of the most effective approaches for the protection of minorities, whilst France’s appalling decision dissimulates oppression under unity.

By comparing a repressive pro-monolingual state with a state that actively protects the cultural identity of its minorities, we aim to compare different approaches to linguistic diversity whilst identifying best practices and short-sighted strategies. Together with the audience, we will try to go further and reflect on the situation in Northern Ireland and the sensitive Irish Language Act.

About the speakers:

Cecilia Gialdini is a PhD candidate at Ulster University. Born in Tuscany, she has studied in Italy and Israel and she is now based in Belfast. Her area of interests covers public policy, multidimensional indicators, language rights, linguistic diversity and social justice. Before entering the academic world, she worked in social housing and an asylum-seekers’ reception centre.

Marc Olivier-Loiseau is a PhD candidate at Ulster University and a teaching assistant at Queen’s University Belfast. Born in the Loire Valley, he received academic training as language teacher. His research intertwines cognitive sciences and history, as he seeks to understand how languages are structured in the brain and why this structure changes over time.

date & time

date & time

25th March
(duration: 90 minutes)




This virtual event is free

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