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14 October 2014
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What is a language?

The oft-cited distinction between a language and a dialect is that 'a language is a dialect with an army and a navy': there are no hard and fast rules, and distinctions often tell us as much about politics as they do about linguistics.

Languages develop alongside historical events.

The collapse of the Roman empire, in time, resulted in the evolution of Latin into different languages: Italian, French, Spanish amongst others. As a result languages that are part of the same family will share similar features and vocabulary.

More recently, before former Yugoslavia split into different republics the language of the country used to be known and studied as Serbo-Croat. What were different dialects of Serbo-Croat have now become known as languages, namely Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian.

Majority, minority, community ...

When people refer to a 'majority' language, they often mean one that is the official language of a sovereign country and spoken by the majority of the country's population.

Minority languages can refer to:

- regional, indigenous languages spoken in certain areas, also called autochthonous languages, such as Welsh, Breton or Basque;

- languages that have come from other areas of Europe, such as Turkish spoken in the UK, or Estonian spoken in Sweden

A language spoken by a majority of the population in a particular area may be a minority language when looked at in a wider geopolitical context.

The languages spoken by migrant communities from a different country are also known as community languages.

The largest number of community languages in Europe can be found in the United Kingdom. Over 300 languages are currently spoken in London schools. Some of the most established of these are Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Cantonese, Mandarin and Hokkien.

An inclusive approach

The question of how we should choose to communicate in a multilingual world is a complex one, and highlights the huge political significance of language.

One of the founding principles of the European Union is respect for the diversity of the Union's languages: "European languages are equal in value and dignity and form an integral part of European culture and civilisation". The Union promotes measures to safeguard its unique linguistic diversity.


Baker, C. & Prys Jones, S. (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1998.

Price, Glanville (Ed.): Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe
Oxford: Blackwell, 1998

Katzner, Kenneth: The languages of the world. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1975.

Online sources

The European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages

European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Unesco Red Book on Endangered Languages: Europe

Ethnologue, Languages of the World


We would like to thank the Diplomatic Service Language Centre and the following individuals for their contribution:

Ann Alari Hunte, Helle Ajmone-Marsan, Yvonne Alexandrescu, Ingibjorg Aradottir, Dorota Bell, Gazmend Berlajolli, Wilna Bing, Bernarda Bregar Chase, Jurate Clarke, Noelia Corte Fernández, Ella Dingley, Sandrine Dordé, Luzia A. Dunne, Francesca Fabbri, Janine Finck, Irene Garland, Bilge Gokoguz, Steve Hunt, Ruzena Holub, Loula Kailas, Edina Kulenovic Dervovic, Terttu Leney, Elena McNeilly, Teresa Morais, Vesselina Ninova, Galina Oleksiuk, Linda Rabuzin, Denise Roach, Christine Sas, Laima Speakman-Brown, Josephine Thysell, Boba Tica, Maja Trajkovska, Agnes Walker, Ol'ga Willett, Anne-Marie Zurn

We would also like to thank Dr Raymond Xerri, Counsellor from Malta's High Commission in London, the Croatian and Serbian sections of BBC World Service and Basque Public Radio and TV, Euskal Irrati Telebista.

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