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Language policy in Hungary, by Antal Paulik and Judit Solymosi


The Minorities Act splits linguistic rights into individual and collective categories. Among individual linguistic rights we can find the right to hold family festivities and ecclesiastic ceremonies in the mother tongue, the right to one’s name in the mother tongue –including the right to personal documents issued in the mother tongue and in Hungarian– as well as the right to mother tongue education and culture.

The act guarantees minority linguistic communities the right to regular mother tongue information in the public service electronic media, the right to initiate and run mother tongue education at all educational levels, the right of safeguarding and nurturing the cultural values, the traditions and the festivities of the community in the mother tongue as well as the right of using the native language in public administration and before the courts. The minority members of local governments are also entitled to use their mother tongue during sessions.

According to the act, local governments are obliged to publish local decrees in the minority languages that are spoken in the settlement, to make the different forms used in administration available in minority languages as well as to ensure minority language inscriptions and signs on buildings accommodating public services and on plates indicating the boundaries of the settlement and its streets. In settlements inhabited by minority communities it is compulsory to employ staff members speaking the language of the given minority when filling posts in public administration and public services.

The Act on public education stipulates that –besides Hungarian– the language used in pre-school and school education as well as in school dormitories is the language of national and ethnic minorities. The 1996 amendment of this act took already into consideration all those competences enshrined in the Minorities Act that entitle minority self-governments to influence the contents and the framework of minority education. According to this amendment, a National Minority Commission composed of the representatives of all minorities was set up as a consultative body to the Minister of Education.

The 1996 Act on radio and television stipulates that the compilation of programmes presenting the culture and the life of minorities is a compulsory task of public service media. The dispensers of public service programmes are obliged to disseminate mother tongue information.

The 1997 Act on the protection of cultural goods, museum institutions,
public library services and cultural education
considers that the preservation of minority cultural traditions, the improvement of the personal, intellectual and economic conditions for individual and community education as well as the support to institutions and organisations carrying out activities focusing on these values is the common task of the whole society.

Minority rights and the use of minority languages are also regulated in international agreements signed and promulgated by the Republic of Hungary. Among these, the two basic documents of the Council of Europe –the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages- are of outstanding importance. Hungary was among the first countries to accede to both documents.

In conformity with the specific structure and contents of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Hungary undertook to implement the optional regulations contained in Chapter III in respect of the Croatian, Slovakian, German, Serbian, Romanian and Slovene languages. Our undertakings particularly focus on the education of minority languages and their use in public life. The report on the implementation of the Charter as well as the recommendations made by the Committee of Ministers can be read on the website of the Council of Europe.

5. Institutions and practice

Thanks to her consequent and continuous minority policy, Hungary possesses the institutional background necessary for the protection of minority languages. At the level of legislation, the Standing Committee of Human Rights, Minority and Religious Affairs of the Hungarian Parliament supervises that no violation of minority and linguistic rights occurs in the process of the elaboration of legal provisions. The institution of the Parliamentary Commissioner of national and ethnic minority rights –created in conformity with the provisions of the Constitution and Act No 59 of year 1993– answers exclusively to Parliament. The minorities’ ombudsman is responsible for investigating any kind of abuse or violation of minority rights (including linguistic ones) by official authorities that may come to his/her attention as well as for issuing recommendations and initiating general and individual measures in order to remedy it. The monitoring of the enforcement of minority linguistic rights makes also part of the duties of the Office for National and Ethnic Minorities.

There are specific minority departments in the two most important line ministries, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of National Cultural Heritage. In both ministries specific Romany ministerial commissioners help solve the particular educational and cultural problems of the Rom minority.

Minority self-governments as part of the public administration system are the main advocates of the protection of linguistic rights at local, regional and national level. The provision to minorities of rights to collective language use figures also in the bilateral documents issued by the joint intergovernmental commissions for minority protection.

After the change of the political system, we witnessed an extraordinary revival of minority public life. Besides the establishment of the minority self-government system, a great number of minority civil organisations were set up with the primary aim of protecting minority languages, promoting their use and representing minority educational interests. Among the organisations of bigger minorities we can find several professional associations of minority writers and artists that play an outstanding role in promoting the literary use of dialects, and their publications constitute important teaching aids to be used in minority education.

With the exception of the Serbian minority, all minority communities have established their own research institutes. Their importance consists in publishing and researching minority history, ethnography, dialects and the present life of minorities in the language of the given minority. In some cases these research institutes work in close cooperation with the academies of sciences of the kin states. Their research findings are often referred to, and used by, the research workers of the kin state who are keen on studying some linguistic or cultural phenomena that disappeared in the mother country several centuries ago.

The Minorities Act as well as the acts of public education and on higher education constitute the legal framework of minority language education. The conditions to teach in minority languages or to teach the minority languages have been developed at all the levels of public education (kindergartens, primary and secondary schools). In the higher education, there are departments training teachers of minority language and literature.

As minority affiliation is a sensitive private issue, the local municipal government will organise and launch minority education only upon the initiative of parents. According to the law, the request of the parents of 8 pupils belonging to the same minority is sufficient, and it obliges the municipality to organise a class with minority education.

Three forms of minority education are simultaneously present in the public education system. The most widely spread form consists of education in which the minority language is taught in four lessons a week and all other subjects are taught in Hungarian. However, children are also taught the past, the origin, the history, the geographical specifics, the customs, the folk art of their minority as well as the history and the present life of their kin state. It can be stated that the number of children enrolled in this form of education is continuously decreasing, except for the German minority.

The second form consists in bilingual education where the humanities, for example history, literature and geography, are taught in the native language while natural science subjects are taught in Hungarian. This form is increasingly popular with minority families and the language knowledge acquired here can prove later on very useful for the children.

The third form of minority education is education offered in the minority language: all subjects –with the exception of Hungarian language and literature– are taught in the language of the given minority. This form is not prevalent as minority parents often consider that a better acquisition of the language of the mainstream environment is more important than knowledge acquired exclusively in the mother tongue.

As for smaller minorities, they try to teach their children minority language, literature and other subjects in the framework of the so-called Sunday schools, which constitute a special form of minority education and are organised outside the school system. Although the Ministry of Education gives financial support to this form of education, further progress in this field would require that these minorities organise their own schools within the public education system, which is fully possible in conformity with the act on public education.

The legal obligation of provision of minority language library services is fulfilled by the public libraries run by the local (municipal) governments. This network provides services for the Croatian, German, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak and Slovenian minorities in hundreds of settlements throughout the country. Within the system of public libraries, 19 so-called "basic libraries" also contribute to the provision of these services. In the case of the other communities, their national minority self-governments are making efforts to set up a basic fund of books for the purposes of a library.

Minority theatres are currently organising themselves. The German, Croatian and Serbian theatres are already institutionalised, and the organisation of the professional Slovak theatre is under way. The companies of the other minorities still work as amateur groups. In 2004, the 3rd Festival of Minority Theatres offered 17 performances presented by 12 minorities.

The most efficient institutions serving the safeguarding of traditions are the minority community centres working with state support. These centres host not only activities related to folk art, folk music and folk traditions, but –to an increasing extent- also activities in the field of modern culture, fine arts, literature and film. Besides presenting the cultural heritage and richness of minorities living in Hungary, minority community centres often organise events presenting the culture of the kin states.

The written press and the publications of minorities are almost exclusively financed from central state resources. These publications are often bilingual. Minorities have the opportunity to present their most recent publications at the annual Budapest Festival of Books. The most popular minority publication of this year’s festival was The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, published in Romany.

The ongoing amendment of the minorities act is aimed at the strengthening of minority self-governance and will hopefully also result in a more effective enforcement of linguistic rights. The amendment ensures minority communities the possibility of taking over and autonomously running the institutions promoting the preservation and the development of their languages. This process has already started, and the bill proposed contains elements that would guarantee the safe take-over and operation of these institutions.

Antal Paulik
Judit Solymosi

Office for National and Ethnic Minorities 

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