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International Mother Language Day 2010

Friday, February 19, 2010, Special release
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At the 2002 population census, Slovene was spoken as the mother tongue by 87.8% of people living in Slovenia, while the languages of national minorities – Hungarian and Italian – were spoken by 0.2% of the population, the same as Romany.

Photo: STAMultilingualism is a precondition for cultural diversity

In 1999, UNESCO proclaimed 21 February the International Mother Language Day in memory of the protest and death of Bengalese students who 47 years before demanded equality for their language. In this way UNESCO wanted to draw attention to the need to preserve cultural and linguistic diversity of individual areas in the world.

Mother tongue is the language children learn from the family or environment. It is normally the first language one learns. Some children, however, learn two or more languages in early childhood; in this case, statistically speaking mother tongue is the language which people (for example, at a population census) determine as their mother tongue. For people living on the territory of Slovenia this is mostly Slovene. As regards the share of speakers of the most frequent mother tongue on the country, Slovenia belongs among linguistically relatively homogeneous EU Member States.

Linguistic diversity in the world

Today, less than a quarter of all world’s languages are being taught in schools; so thousands of languages are not part of the educational system, media, publishing and the public in general. And yet there are almost 7,000 languages used by people every day; but due to a low number of speakers, 96% of these languages are spoken by only 4% of the world’s population.

In most countries more than one language is spoken. The country with the greatest variety of languages is Papua New Guinea where 820 languages (all of them autochthon) are spoken. More than 50 languages are spoken in 37 countries. Thirty of the world’s most frequently spoken languages are spoken by almost 5 billion people or 77% of the world’s population.

Languages are an essential part of human heritage. For every people or nation language is an essential part of their culture. Unfortunately, more than half of nearly 7,000 languages spoken in the world are in endangered.

According to UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which offers data on how many people speak a certain language and where and to what extent the language is in danger, as many as 2,500 languages are endangered. In Europe eleven languages are critically endangered, three of them are Sami languages and one is kočevarsko (Gottschee), a dialect in Slovenia which is critically endangered as it is only known by the older generation.

Europe is very rich in languages

Language is an integral part of our identity and the most direct expression of culture. Multilingualism is becoming increasing important in the European Union, because language skills are becoming ever more important for life in the EU. Today, linguistic diversity in the EU is a fact of life and cooperation with people speaking other languages is becoming our daily life.

The major language families in the European Union are Germanic, Romance, Slavic, Baltic and Celtic. The European Union is a multilingual community in two senses: (1) its citizens speak different mother tongues and (2) in addition to their mother tongues, a large majority of its citizens are able to speak several foreign languages.

Since 1 January 2007, 23 official languages are spoken in 27 EU Member States, namely Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Portuguese, Polish, Romanian, Slovene, Slovak, Spanish and Swedish. In the EU languages selected by national governments are used and not only a few languages that would be selected by the Union itself and that would perhaps not be understood by many of its people. The most widespread language in the EU is English, which is spoken by 51% of people living in EU Member States (38% as a foreign language), followed by French and German, which are spoken as foreign languages by 14% of the people; German is mother tongue for 18% of the EU population and French for 12% of the EU population.

Slovenia is a linguistically homogenous country

As shown by the Adults Education Survey conducted in the EU-27 in 2007, in terms of the share of speakers of the most frequent mother tongue in the country, Slovenia belongs among linguistically relatively homogeneous EU Member States. According to the mentioned survey, in 2007 the most linguistically homogenous Member States (the most frequent mother tongue in the country was spoken by more than 90% of the people) were Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Portugal, Czech Republic, Italy, Finland, the UK, Greece, Cyprus and Slovenia.

Linguistically the most heterogeneous Member States (in which less than 66% of the people spoke the most frequently spoken mother tongue) were Estonia, Latvia and Belgium.

Mother tongue in Slovenia

For most people in Slovenia Slovene is their mother tongue. For national minorities and foreign nationals Slovene is most frequently their second language or the language of the environment. For people in nationally mixed parts of Slovenia mother tongues are Italian and Hungarian.

According to results of all population censuses conducted on the territory of Slovenia after the First World War, Slovene has been the mother tongue of the great majority of the population. However, the share of people whose mother tongue is Slovene has been falling since 1953 (at the 2002 Census it was 87.8%); the decrease was the smallest between the last two censuses.

The two national minorities living in Slovenia have their own mother tongues: Italian and Hungarian. The share of people whose mother tongue is Hungarian has been decreasing, while since the 1971 Census the share of people whose mother tongue is Italian has been slightly changing up and down at around 0.2%. In Slovenia the shares of people whose mother tongues are Romany and Albanian have been growing.

Between the 1991 and 2002 censuses the share of people whose mother tongue is Romany has grown from 0.1% to 0.2%, while the share of people whose mother tongue is Albanian has grown from 0.20% to 0.37%. Among people whose mother tongue is not Slovene, at the 1921 Census the share of German speaking people was the highest at 3.9%. By the 1931 Census their share has decreased to 2.5% and by 1971 it has dropped to 0.1%, which is where it was at the 2002 Census.

Individual language groups of people in Slovenia have significantly different sex structures. Women, mostly autochthon population, prevail as regards Slovene, Italian, Hungarian, German and Romany as mother tongues. Among immigrants, men whose mother tongue is Albanian outnumber women whose mother tongue is Albanian by two to one. As regards immigrants, the difference between the number of men and the number of women is the smallest with people whose mother tongue is the so-called Serbo-Croatian.

2.5 million people speak Slovene

In terms of the number of speakers, only 5% of all world’s languages have more than two million speakers – and Slovene is one of them. So despite its relative smallness, Slovene belongs among the elite group of the 5% world’s most spoken languages – it is actually 179th most spoken language in the world.

Slovene is not an endangered language; it is used as the first language by about 1.85 million people. Except in Slovenia, Slovene is also spoken in Slavia Veneta and Friuli-Venezia Giulia (Italy), in Carinthia (Austria), in Istria (Croatia), in the Raba region (Hungary) and in some parts of Germany, USA, Canada and Australia. In total, some 2.5 million people speak Slovene.

In recent years the number of people speaking Slovene has also been decreasing more slowly than in the past.

Slovene has around 50 dialects

Among Slavic languages Slovene is the most diverse in terms of dialects. Dialects are special forms of a language that are spoken in specific geographical areas. Slovene language dialects are joined into seven dialect groups: koroška, primorska, rovtarska, gorenjska, dolenjska, štajerska and panonska.

Knowledge of foreign languages in Slovenia

Data on foreign language skills of people in Slovenia in 2007 were collected by the 2007 Adult Education Survey.

In 2007, 92% of adults aged 25-64 spoke at least one foreign language, which ranked Slovenia among the leading countries in Europe behind Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, Latvia and Slovakia.

In 2007, English was spoken by as many as three quarters of people aged 25-34, by almost half of people aged 35-49 and by more than a quarter of people aged 50-64.

About 30% of adults spoke German. The differences between age groups were much smaller. Most of the people speaking German were 50-64 years old.

10% of adults spoke Italian; the shares for the three age groups were the same.

Very few adults in Slovenia spoke French or Russian.

Results are internationally comparable since the survey is conducted in all EU Member States, EFTA countries and EU candidate countries.

In Slovenia too more and more young people and adults learn foreign languages

A comparison of data on learning foreign languages in school years 1996/97 and 2007/08 shows that both in elementary and in upper secondary schools the share of pupils learning foreign languages according to the weekly schedule or as an elective subject increased. In addition to the compulsory foreign language – which in Slovenia is mostly English – in the school year 2007/2008 almost 26,000 elementary school pupils learned at least one other foreign language as an elective subject. The vast majority of them selected German as the second foreign language, followed by English, French, Italian and Spanish.

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