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The ill-fated 2012 languages law in Ukraine (proposed by the Party of Regions, but eventually found unconstitutional by Ukraine's supreme court)

allowed the use of minority languages in courts, schools and other government institutions in areas of Ukraine where the national minorities exceed 10% of the population.

Was this modelled after some laws in countries of Europe (incl. Russia)? I.e. are there countries in Europe with a law with a similar provision based on a percentage, and is it this low (10%) or close to that, say <20%?

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  • The more common practice is for a country to designate languages of national or regional languages in a political process in a way that is permanent or at least in force indefinitely, rather than establishing a percentage threshold. Even when there is a percentage it is often adopted in the shadow of knowing what languages will be in and out based upon that definition in advance.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 27, 2022 at 23:29

13 Answers 13

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In North Macedonia, Amendment V to the Constitution - passed in 2001 after the signing of the Ohrid Agreement between the government and the Albanian minority - enshrines the status of 'official language' for any language spoken by more than 20% of the population. In addition, this applies in each local government unit; if more than 20% of the local population speaks a certain language, it has the status of 'official language' locally.

Official languages may be used to communicate with government bodies, and personal documents must be issued to citizens speaking an official language in that language - as well as Macedonian.

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    Congrats on being the one answer out of twelve at the time of writing that actually provides an example that matches the question as asked (though I feel like wonderbear's answer is second-closest to the criteria that OP listed). This is really interesting, cheers :)
    – Muzer
    Sep 26, 2022 at 12:14
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Some traditional minorities are recognized and their language and culture is protected by the German state. This includes schools in their language, road signs, and some use of their language in administrative proceedings. The recognition of these minorities is based on history, not on current demographics, and they get rights which more recent immigrant groups do not have. I'm not aware of any minimum population percentages to maintain that status.

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    For an extreme example, less than 5% of Ireland's residents speak Irish on a daily basis and yet it's still the country's official language. It's about national pride, not practicality. Sep 23, 2022 at 20:48
  • @JonathanReez Could be a standalone answer. Sep 24, 2022 at 20:21
  • @JonathanReez FWIW Ireland is actively trying to revive its language so the percentage is rising especially among younger people. Definitions matter too:. Globally, there are about 1.2 million speakers of the Irish language (98% in Ireland). About 170,000 speak it as a first language. But, the 2016 census in Ireland found that about 10.5 percent of respondents spoke Irish on a daily or weekly basis, and that 4.2 percent of respondents were regular, active speakers of it. So, with three different definitions you get three quite different percentages. Far more can speak it a little.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 27, 2022 at 23:36
  • @ohwilleke it’s still bizarre that English isn’t the country primary language on paper. In any other place a language that’s only spoken by 10.5% of the population would be a protected secondary language at best. Sep 28, 2022 at 1:42
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    @JonathanReez Not bizarre in light of the fact that utilitarian considerations are not the only reason to give a language "Official" status.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 28, 2022 at 19:31
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Swedish is an official language in Finland but only spoken as only language by about 5% of the population. Swedish does have a strong legal status as all services need to be available in Swedish as well as in Finnish. As pointed out in the comments, protected legal status is mostly due to shared history Finland and Sweden have. As such Swedish has been grandfathered into official status much more than introduced as a new minority language. Ahvenanmaa (Åland) is an autonomous area in Finland where close to 90% of the population speaks Swedish as their first language.

Saami is also recognized as official language in some municipalities of Finland.

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    Though the status of Swedish has more to do with history and politics, and less with the number of people speaking it.
    – ilkkachu
    Sep 25, 2022 at 20:33
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    Additionally there is the special case of Åland, which is a region of Finland that has >90% Swedish speakers and less than 5% Finnish speakers.
    – blues
    Sep 26, 2022 at 6:53
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Here is what I found out about Austria, my home country and thus the country that I am most familiar with.

The law about national minorities (Volksgruppengesetz) mentions specific villages and towns where specific local authorities are required to enable citizens to communicate in the Croatian, Slovene or Hungarian language respectively. That is "Anlage 2" (annex 2) of that law.

The law does not say why these specific places are mentioned, but we can look at legislative history to find out.

The law that introduced this list was passed in 2011. The government's documentation at the time of submission to the legislature mentions on page 6 that these towns and villages are "essentially" (im Wesentlichen):

  1. those mentioned in a previous regulation from 2006
  2. those where the Constitutional Court had decided that they were bilingual according to the law at the time
  3. those where the number of speakers of both languages was believed to be at least 17.5%, but apparently varying between 15 and 20 percent

That document also claims on page 5 that international practice for deciding that places are bilingual varies between 5 and 25 percent. It cites some legal authorities for this claim.

So the answer to the "<20%" part of your question appears to be yes.

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    Many of those provisions come directly from the Austrian state treaty of 55 - see paragraph 7. That was done to protect the rights of minorities from surrounding states living in Austria and it includes quite a few additional protections, not just language. The law has been extended later (notably to also include protections for roma and sinti), but the original just dealt with Slovenian and Croatian, because those were the two nationalities that were quite prevalent for historical reasons.
    – Voo
    Sep 26, 2022 at 14:03
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If we are talking about Russian Federation, there is no threshold, but there are all kinds of territories with recognized minorities and their languages:

  • Adygea has just one quarter population who is Adygean (Circassian) but it has Adygean language as official.
  • In Karelia only seven percent of population is Karelian (and language use is perhaps lower) but Karelian and other regional languages are taught in elementary schools.
  • Tatars being one of the largest national minorities in Russia, it is possible to get school and university-level education in Tatar language (curriculum choice is obviously limited) in Tatarstan.
  • In Deutscher Nationalkreis Asowo raion (county) of Omsk region, German is recognized as an official language despite there being slightly less than twenty percent germans living there.
  • The controversial Jewish Autonomous Oblast has very few, and actually a countable number, of actual Jews living there, but it still keeps the name and some cultural affinity towards Jewish culture, including some Yiddish and Hebrew languages use.

All that leads to a conclusion that there is no low threshold where it comes to minority language rights in Russian Federation as long as there are historical reasons to support those. It boils down to some nations (such as Tatars, Karelians and even Germans) having recognized status on some dedicated land versus other ones (such as Ukrainians, Koreans and some say Russians) not having it.

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Welsh is only spoken by around 1.3% of the UK population, and that's very generous estimate. Yet in Wales all road signs and government services are bilingual, despite only about a third of all people in Wales considered L1 or L2 speakers (and L2 with varying levels of fluency).

It's debatable whether it counts or not, depends on if you consider Wales a separate country or part of the UK for the sake of argument.

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    What proportion of Welsh residents are they though? Sep 24, 2022 at 20:21
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    @AzorAhai-him- In 2011 (latest Census data available), 20% of the Welsh population had at least some capability. The latest statistics from 2019 indicate that the percentage is now nearly 30%, ranging from 14% with some capability in one authority area to 75% in the highest. Sep 25, 2022 at 9:54
  • The U.K. treats Wales for some purposes as a different country. It has the highest proportion of L1 speakers and it is the language of instruction in some areas (many who are L1 are young, quite a few old, there are fewer in between). Wales has the highest proportion of fluent speakers of any Celtic language.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 27, 2022 at 23:40
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has 3 official languages and although Germanophones just constitute 1% of the population (I.E. native language speakers), 22% of the country went through the effort of learning it as their 2nd language, though that number is decreasing rapidly as the younger generations choose English as their second language.

As all products sold in Belgium must have at least instructions / ingredients / ... in the three official languages, you can go shopping in French one day, Dutch the next, German the third and English the fourth as most manufacturers add English as well nowadays because Brussels is not only the capital of Belgium, but also the capital of Europe and everyone speaks English as a 2nd / 3rd / 4th language anyway.

does even better: German, French, Italian and Romansch though the younger generations will communicate in English with each other nowadays if their native tongues differ as it's much easier for everyone to learn just English and then use that instead of learning German, French, Italian, Romansch and English...

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In the United States, there is no Official Language at the federal level of government. At the state level, many states (and all five territories) may recognize other minority languages, although as of writing, 32 make English the only official language of state government. In the event of a non-English speaker needing to appear before court, the court will provide an interpreter when reasonable, who is sworn in to give the translation of the testimony. However, this is not a right of the people and if the language is too obscure a translator can be denied.

Of the states that have multiple official Languages, Alaska is the state with the most. Including English, the Alaskan government recognizes 20 languages (all are Native Alaskan in origin.). Puerto Rico is the only U.S. jurisdiction which does not use English as a primary language of the government, instead using Spanish. However, English is used in federal court proceedings in PR. English is a secondary recognized official language

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  • Puerto Rico is also the only place where the I-9 form (a federal form relating to proof of employment authorization) may be completed in Spanish.
    – phoog
    Sep 24, 2022 at 15:38
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As hszmv says in their answer, the United States has no official language and uses English in practice.

However, Executive Order 13166 signed in 1990 requires Federal agencies to ensure that persons with limited English proficiency (LEP) can have meaningful access to the agencies' services.

No specific thresholds are mandated, but a 2002 guideline called Guidance to Federal Financial Assistance Recipients Regarding Title VI Prohibition Against National Origin Discrimination Affecting Limited English Proficient Persons recommends

written translations of vital documents for each eligible LEP language group that constitutes five percent or 1,000, whichever is less, of the population of persons eligible to be served or likely to be affected or encountered

In practice, what this looks like is that my county provides election materials (instructions, ballots, website, etc.) and other official documents in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese.

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Many European countries (Italy, Germany, Finland, Ireland, etc.) have designated areas where a minority language has a special status or support of some sort but usually those are places where the language is still understood by a sizeable portion of the local (not national) population and they are listed explicitly rather than determined based on a formula.

Belgium however has a system that seems very close to what you describe where speakers of the other language have to be afforded some special support (facilités) by the local authorities if their number exceeds a certain threshold. The details are complex and highly contentious but the most relevant feature of the system for your question is that if the number of speakers reaches 20%, they can petition to have their language recognized (under a 1921 law) and if it reaches 30%, it's supposed to be automatic (since 1932).

(I wrote “the other language” because these rules only apply to French speakers in the Dutch-speaking region or Dutch speakers in the French-speaking region, not to German speakers or any other minority language that would emerge.)

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What would such a question do without some Canadian Anglo/French drama, n'est-ce pas?

In Canada, the system is defined to have 2 official languages, French and English. Let's leave aside some of the, rather peevish, limitations Quebec is always trying to put on the English language and concentrate on what is agreed upon federally.

  • You can access legal systems in your language of choice. Certainly Federal courts, and theoretically at least Provincial Courts.

  • You can be schooled in one of the two languages you desire, provided you qualify for it. Theoretically, that means if either of your parents were schooled in English you ought to be able to get schooling in English in Quebec. Or vice versa, outside of Quebec. My kids were schooled in French in Vancouver, which doesn't have that many French people in it.

  • Dealing with the federal bureaucracy is also available in your language of choice. For example, tired from a flight, I said "bonjour" to the Canadian border services person at Vancouver airport on arrival. Not a word was said, I got escorted to another line, where the officer could speak French (no, I didn't jump any queues as a result).

This is less linked to local population proportions than it is to an individual having demonstrable links to either of the 2 official Canadian languages. In practice, this may be less true in less populous areas. I can't see some of the smaller British Columbia towns offering much of a French school experience, due to limited demand. The same might be said of expecting English services in the Quebec back country. But that's at least the theory.

The all-country stats are roughly 20% Francophones vs 75% Anglophones, but that varies widely by region, yet the principle of access is, again theoretically, nation-wide at the Federal level. At the Provincial government level, bilingualism is perhaps more aspirational in many regions (I doubt I'd get far trying to speak French in BC and I know English-onlies who struggle mightily dealing with the Quebec government).

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    So the answer to the question "are there countries in Europe with a law with a similar provision based on a percentage" is "Not in Canada".
    – pipe
    Sep 25, 2022 at 11:15
  • @pipe What, Canada is not in Europe? Wow, I didn't know. Could be wrong, but seems to me that experiences with legally and durably accommodating fractious minorities with a history of language-driven separatism, be they in Europe, Asia or North America can be illustrative to the OP. Quick, don't forget to "enlighten" the US-centric answer too. Sep 25, 2022 at 23:46
  • It's a lot more complicated than that. At the federal level, there are two official languages and there are guarantees that the public can interact with the federal government in either language. In Quebec, only French is considered an Official Language, but there are legal guarantees about the English language minority (in particular, English education is guaranteed in the Canadian constitution). Outside Quebec, only New Brunswick and (weirdly) the Yukon Territory recognize French as an official language. Nunavut, NWT and Nova Scotia recognize one or more indigenous languages
    – Flydog57
    Sep 26, 2022 at 16:35
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It's also known as multiculturalism... (That page gives info for many EU nations further down). Britain has been retreating from multicultural laws since the early 2000's. Previous to that, government forms for things like taxes and benefits were available in Polish, Jewish, Urdu, Bengali and Gujurati and other minority languages for a brief while as an experiment. Currently local authorities still can choose to issue forms mulitilingually...https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/translation-into-foreign-languages

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    Can you provide some evidence for your claims?
    – deep64blue
    Sep 25, 2022 at 14:33
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    Also, language rights go way further than a few translated government forms. For example, the right for the children to be taught that language at school...
    – SJuan76
    Sep 25, 2022 at 16:16
  • @deep64blue, you can follow link one, it lists all nations. On UK it states labour pushed mulitculture policy forwards, then there were london bombings. Then later prim minister cameron stated "multiculturalism has failed". I saw photos of the forms and report of their abolition on uk news in about 18yrs ago, good luck finding that tv news on the web. I attempted searching that. Sep 26, 2022 at 7:11
  • It was some years earlier than this, concerning govt forms: gov.uk/government/speeches/translation-into-foreign-languages Sep 26, 2022 at 7:16
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Following the English translation of Estonian constitution, in localities where at least one-half of the permanent residents belong to a national minority, everyone has the right to also receive responses from state agencies in the language of minority (chapter 51). 50 % does not look like a very small percentage but this is the guaranteed right.

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