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Language minorities in Poland at the moment of accession to the EU, by Marta Moskal


5. Language-related legislation

The Constitution of the Republic of Poland was adopted on April 2, 1997, and entered into force on October 1, 1997. Article 27 addressed the question of the state’s official language: "Polish shall be the official language in the Republic of Poland. This provision shall not infringe upon national minority rights resulting from ratified international agreements". Article 35 of the Constitution guarantees all "Polish citizens belonging to national or ethnic minorities the freedom to maintain and develop their own language, to maintain customs and traditions, and to develop their own culture" (paragraph 1), and particularly recognises the right "to establish educational, cultural and religious institutions designed to protect their identity", as well as "to participate in the resolution of matters connected with their cultural identity" (paragraph 2).

Besides the Constitution, several secondary acts encourage basic protection of national and ethnic minorities by means of national legislation: The issue of teaching minority languages is regulated by the 7th September of 1991 Educational System Act. which obliges public schools to provide facilities for pupils to maintain their sense of national, ethnic, linguistic and religious identity and above all to provide language instruction. This instruction may take place in "separate groups, departments, schools", "groups, departments, schools with optional instruction in language, history and culture", "in inter-school groups of instruction". The decree of the Ministry of National Education dated the 3rd of December 2002 stipulates the minimum number of pupils needed when creating classes (at least 7 for primary school and at least 14 for secondary school), and the number of hours of lessons (3 per week).

Basically, using foreign languages in the courts while testifying or during interrogation of witnesses is possible, as well as communication between the defendant and the court. A precondition though is lack of knowledge of the Polish language and not being a member of a national or ethnic minority. (5)

As regards multilateral agreements or international treaties, the Republic of Poland is a signatory of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and of the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages, although only the first has been ratified.

The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities was signed by Poland on the 1st of February of 1995. It was ratified on the 20th of December of 2000, after a long debate and numerous obstacles all too readily perceived by the parties of the right wing. Fundamental and beneficial changes in the policy on minorities as well as in the legal system had been brought about already in the first half of the 90s. Currently the Polish legal system, both on the national level and on the level of international commitments, establishes protection of people belonging to ethnic and national minorities, generally equivalent to the regulations put forward by the Convention. There are, however, rules included in the Convention which are not reflected in the Polish law. The most important are:

  • prohibition of actions aiming at assimilating national minorities (art. 5.2)

  • using the language of a minority in private and in public (art. 10.1)

  • using the language of a minority in dealings with public authorities (art. 10.2)

  • right to put up private inscriptions in the language of a minority (art. 11.2)

  • educational rights which concern spreading knowledge about minority cultures, training teachers for schools of national minorities, access to textbooks in the language of national minorities (art. 12.2).

These issues are regulated in the Parliament’s projected Law on National and Ethnic Minorities, which is now on the agenda in Parliament.

There is currently work being carried out on the Polish legal regulations concerning linguistic liberties of national minorities. The law contains for example the right to register a name and a surname according to the spelling conventions of one’s mother tongue and suggestions concerning the issue of putting names of towns and streets in the foreign language as well as inscriptions on public offices.

Unfortunately for several years Parliament seems unable to make up its mind to pass the law. This perception of minority problems as a party political tool as a result of bilateral state policy, has been all too characteristic of many bodies dealing more or less competently with the minority issues.

One of the two most important European documents concerning the protection of (national or linguistic) minorities, is the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The European Charter was signed by the Republic of Poland on May 12, 2003, but still has not been ratified, since, on the basis of the present Polish legal regulations, the Republic of Poland is not able to comply to the full extent with the obligations resulting from making the Charter legally binding.

Finally, Poland has also signed bilateral treaties with the neighbouring states (the Federal Republic of Germany, the former Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, the Ukraine, Republic of Belarus, Republic of Lithuania) which further guarantee the protection of the rights of national minorities.

6. Use of languages in other public spheres

Legal regulations have only partial influence on policy towards ethnic minorities. The practice of public life and the amount of financial resources is decisive here. In Poland, political actions directed at minorities are performed by the government administration and concern mainly the cultures. One of the tools of Polish cultural policy towards these circles is support for the teaching of minority languages, support for the press published in these languages (a rule has been adopted that every minority should have the financing of one newspaper guaranteed) and cultural events. An important element of the state’s policy is guaranteed access to the public radio and television, (6) which is aimed at strengthening these communities. There is however no linguistic or cultural policy at a provincial level.

6.1 Use of languages in education

The following minorities have schools providing lessons "of" and "in" their mother tongues: Germans, Jews, Lithuanians, Russians, Slovaks, and Ukrainians. Belarussian, Lemkish and Kashubian are taught in state schools as an additional language. The lack of schooling in Romany schools is complicated by the problem of the lower achievement level of Gypsy Children, connected with the nature of social functioning of this community.

The current development of the educational system shows signs of sufficient protection existing there, however in the face of meagre financing and allocation of teachers this education cannot satisfy all needs.

6.2 Use of Languages in the media

The following minority languages are used in state-subsidized periodicals (in brackets the number of periodicals is given): German (9), Belarussian (6), Ukrainian (6), Kashubian (5), Ruthenian (4), Lithuanian (2), Romany (2), Yiddish and Hebrew (2), Slovak (1), and Czech (1).

Public regional stations broadcast programs in native languages (in brackets the number of programmes is given) for Belarussians (from Bialystok - 4), Ukrainian (from Bialystok, Koszalin, Rzeszˇw, Olsztyn - 4), Germans (from Opole and Katowice - 3), Kashubian (from Gdansk and Koszalin - 2) and finally Lithuanians (Bialystok -1).

The public regional TV regularly shows programmes for Germans (from Opole, Katowice, Bialystok - 3), Belarussians (from Bialystok - 2), Ukrainian (from Bialystok and one country-wide service from Warsaw - 2), Kashubs (Gdansk - 1), Lithuanians (Bialystok - 1) and Russians and Gypsies (both from Bialystok - 1).

7. Conditions of existence of minority and regional languages

Regional and minority languages in the territory of Poland differ according to their level of development, which is determined by numerous linguistic and extra-linguistic factors. To the first group of factors belong in the first place the numerical force and organisational state of the minority itself. The first is low in the case of Tartar, Karaim, Wilamowicean, the Jews and Old Believers. Tartar and Wilamowicean are nearly extinct in Poland because of the assimilation process in these groups. Yiddish and Hebrew are disappearing in our country because of the continually diminishing number of their users. The Old Believers’ dialect will probably last, considering the well-known attachment of this group to their religious traditions.

In the case of less numerous minorities a factor decisive for the development or absence is whether there exists a state which may act as a support for the minority and assist in the maintenance and development of the language. Minorities having such a background are Germans in the first place, who receive substantial support, and Lithuanians, Slovaks, Ukrainians. Exceptional is the situation of the Byelorussians (White Russians), whose state shows scant interest in the development of the Byelorussian language. Therefore Polish Byelorussians must take care of their linguistic interests themselves, as do the Lemkos, who do not have their own country. The latter must furthermore overcome the resistance of Ukrainians towards their emancipation.

Of similar importance for the maintenance and development of a language can be the Church. For a long time it has promoted cultivation of the Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Lemkish languages. A model example is the situation of the Old Believers dialect, the Karaim language and the language of Polish Armenians and Tartars. However neither Byelorussian nor German has found church support –in the first case the language is as a result endangered, and in the second the situation has changed only recently. For a longer period of time Slovaks had problems using their mother tongue in church.

The second group of factors are socio-linguistic conditions. First should be considered the situation of nationalities, which – while having a particular national identity – may not use their mother tongue in everyday communication (Polish Germans and Slovaks), because they have lost the ability to use it. They have either for a long time or always used dialects of other languages in everyday life (for instance Silesian or Spis-Oravian dialects). Therefore they learn it. Another, more frequent situation is when members of a minority learn a given language in its standard variant and use its dialect in everyday communication (Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Byelorussians). The third is a situation when a dialect which has been used hitherto is gaining or has gained the status of standard language (Lemkos) or remains the primary language of a group without taking the form of a codified language (Romany). It depends though on the inherent qualities of a given language, namely the third condition.

There is then the case of the Romany language, which consists of widely divergent idioms, whose speakers live in small communities scattered amongst larger groups. Romany has only just started to exist in Poland in the written form and is therefore far from codification and plays exclusively the role of a language of everyday communication (however it is not itself threatened in its functioning). On the other hand the first possibilities of codification come into being only when a language becomes a written language and begins to serve as a platform of communication for various separate groups of a given community (introducing mass media on a larger scale). Even preliminary codification furthers the introduction a language in schools (which increases the number of its users and promotes survival) –for example what the Lemkos have been fighting for.

Only full development of a language (in respect of development of all levels of vocabulary) can bring in its unlimited usage in scientific, economic and administrative institutions. Those Polish minorities whose languages are official languages of neighbouring countries can use in an unlimited way its forms created elsewhere, although they may be deprived of proper opportunities to contribute to this development. The situation is worse for those minorities which do not have their own state (Lemkos) or whose states take little interest in the national language (Byelorussians).

Perhaps as a compensation Byelorussian and Lemkish minorities in Poland are more active in the field of literature.

8. Conclusions

Poland, as well as other countries in Central-Eastern Europe, is a different country than it was 15 years ago. After the restoration of democracy in 1989 new opportunities for groups constituting national, ethnic, linguistic, confessional (religious) and regional minorities appeared. Most of them had not only been deprived of any protection or assistance from the state, but also often overtly persecuted (cf. Majewicz & Wichierkiewicz 1990). Along with the enlargement, the East European Union is enriched with over 40 new minority languages (16 of them are present on the territory of Poland). The enlargement of the EU on May, 1 2004 can be seen as a new challenge and a new chance for these linguistic minorities.

Since the European Union is based on democracy and the ideology of cultural and linguistic diversity, all acceding countries must meet a certain EU standard of non-discrimination. This commitment is good, but it is not known whether protection of all of new minorities will be possible. On the other hand, Poland like some other new EU countries is already way ahead of some of the western nation states in terms of minority protection and linguistic rights. However the existence of certain legal standards is not sufficient. It needs to be emphasized here that linguistic rights of minorities are guaranteed in a somewhat different way in each country. Similarly, no uniform linguistic policy may be identified in the European Union. Therefore, models for conducting ethnic and linguistic policy for the old and the new states of the Union are necessary.

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