European languages vitality barometer to save minority languages from extinction

European Language Diversity for All project receives EUR 2.7 million in EU funding


In a few years time, a vitality barometer for European languages should be able to provide a reliable indication of which languages are in acute danger of dying out and which have a good chance of survival as a minority language. Lead by Professor Anneli Sarhimaa, expert in Northern European and Baltic languages at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, academics at eight universities in six European countries will be working on this vitality barometer on behalf of the EU from March 2010. The European Commission is placing great importance on the project and is funding 42 months of research with a total of €2.7 million.

The academics will conduct detailed investigations of 14 Finno-Ugric languages. "These languages are particularly well suited to the investigations as they cover the entire spectrum of the different minority languages, starting with autochthonous languages such as Meänkieli in Sweden right through to the language of new migrant workers such as Estonians in Germany," explains project leader Sarhimaa. The results will be used to create a European language vitality barometer which is so universal that it can be used anywhere for all minority languages. The European Language Vitality Barometer "EuLaViBar" will be comparable with the Red List of endangered species, acting as an indicator of the current status and extent of the danger. It will also serve as a tool for the EU to monitor how the EU policy for the protection of minorities is being implemented.

12 academics and 20 PhD students and postdocs from Germany, Finland, Austria, Sweden, Estonia, Russia, and Slovenia will carry out numerous interviews in the field during the course of the project and analyze text documents in the 14 minority languages and relevant majority languages. Linguists will investigate the language of the Seto people in eastern Estonia, as well as that of the Hungarian population in Slovenia. Legal experts will assess the legal position of the minorities with regard to EU legislation. Sociologists will assess public perception of the ethnic groups. Statisticians will develop the methodological structure for gathering and analyzing material.

"Multilingualism is a part of our great European heritage," states Sarhimaa. "In Europe, 46 million people are brought up with both a minority language and the main language spoken in the area." This project aims to preserve and protect this heritage. Outside the EU, this legacy is also in danger of dying out in Russia, partly because ethnic groups formerly dependent on nature for their livelihood are dwindling and their language with them. The European Language Diversity for All project (ELDIA) also encompasses the Karelian, Vepsian, and Seto ethnic groups in Russia, as well as the Northern Sami people in Norway who live close to the EU borders. A further aim of the vitality barometer is to show that minorities and majorities do not need to compete and that their languages can co-exist side-by-side, thereby identifying central factors for language preservation. One thing is certain: All languages spoken by fewer than one million people have an extremely precarious future.

This project has the largest budget in the field of humanities and social sciences at Mainz University, and it therefore represents a major cornerstone for the "Pro Humanities and Social Sciences" initiative. On an international level, ELDIA is the most extensive individual project researching Finno-Ugric languages ever conducted. Participants include the universities of Helsinki, Oulu, Tartu, Vienna, Maribor and Mainz, the Mälardalen University, and the Åland Islands Peace Institute. Representatives of the affected ethic groups will also be involved, as well as a broad section of the public, including non-governmental organizations, local speakers and representatives of interest groups.

Anneli Sarhimaa is responsible for the coordination of the project. She herself has Finnish-Russian roots and currently belongs to the small minority of Finns in Germany. She speaks eight languages and has been researching Finno-Ugric minority languages since the 1980s. As a university professor, Sarhimaa has been head of the Northern European and Baltic Languages and Cultures field of research and teaching in Mainz since 2002, carrying out valuable preliminary work without which the current research project would not have been possible. Those responsible for the school of Northern European and Baltic Languages and Cultures aim to turn the long-standing teaching program for northern European and Baltic languages, the only one of its kind in Germany and the EU, into a master’s course.