Copyright: Åse M.P. Pulk/Sámediggi

Endangered languages and discrimination

What endangered languages have to do with inequality and discrimination: new research results from the University of Konstanz and Kristianstad.

Every two weeks, one of the world's estimated 7,000 languages becomes extinct. It is estimated that only about half of our current languages will still be spoken in the coming century. When UNESCO's "International Mother Language Day" is celebrated on 21 February, another language is about to die.

What does it mean for a language minority to lose their language? In a study, researchers from the Cluster of Excellence "The Politics of Inequality" at the University of Konstanz show clear correlations with discrimination. Speakers of minority languages worldwide experience disadvantages in society, education and work – especially when they speak their language in public.

Comparing Norway and Sweden, the authors make suggestions for political courses of action: According to their study, promoting the language and culture of a minority is an effective lever for reducing discrimination, while socio-economic measures alone are insufficient.

Recognition as a national language reduces discrimination

The study focused on the Sámi population in Norway and Sweden. In both countries, the Sámi are a social minority and the use of the Sámi language is equally declining. Norway, at least in parts of the country, recognizes Sámi as an official national language that is represented in everyday life. Sweden does so too, but to a lesser extent.

The research findings show that in both countries, Sámi experience significantly more discrimination than the majority population. The most pronounced discrimination is experienced by people who speak Sámi in public. In comparing the two countries, it became clear that Swedish Sámi who use their indigenous language often are most strongly affected by discrimination.

Insufficient opportunities to learn and speak Sámi in school, as well as administrative hurdles, mean that Sámi speakers have very few opportunities to use their language outside of their families. Such barriers can become a form of structural discrimination. In the study, Sámi in Sweden described their impression that their country's language policy discourages them from learning and revitalizing their mother tongue.

One key result of the study is that showing appreciation for and establishing the language in everyday life has positive effects on the social standing of the minority which then reduces discrimination: "Discrimination against linguistic minorities is very often linked to a lack of appreciation for their language. Successful policies in Norway show: By integrating a minority language more strongly into the public sphere, for example through the use of multilingual signage and labelling in everyday life, discrimination can be successfully counteracted," emphasizes the research team of the Cluster of Excellence "The Politics of Inequality" at the University of Konstanz.

The researchers recommend a language policy that resolutely promotes respect and appreciation for Sámi languages, in order to combat discrimination and perceived inequalities.

Key facts:

  • The policy paper “Why language matters: Inequality Perceptions among the Sámi in Sweden and Norway" is based on the results of two research projects in Norway and Sweden:
    • The "Nordic Peoples Survey" was conducted by the Cluster of Excellence "The Politics of Inequality" in Norway and Sweden in summer 2021 with 5,400 participants (2,396 in Norway, including 44.7 percent with Sámi ethnicity, and 3,020 in Sweden, including 28 percent with a Sámi ethnicity). 
    • These findings were linked to qualitative data from interviews with Sámi speakers conducted by Yair Sapir (Kristianstad University) in 2020.

The policy paper is a publication of the Cluster of Excellence "The Politics of Inequality" at the University of Konstanz. The authors are Anika Lloyd-Smith, Fabian Bergmann, Yair Sapir, Rusen Yasar and Tanja Kupisch.