There is no scholarly consensus on what a "minority language" is, because various different standards have been applied in order to classify languages as "minority language" or not. According to Owens (2013), attempts to define minority languages generally fall into several categories:
Demographic definitions: 'Minority languages are those whose speakers are fewer than those of another group(s), within a defined area.' In highly linguistically diverse areas, this can mean that even the largest language community is smaller than 50% of the total population of that area (a "plurality language" rather than a "majority language"). As an example, de Vries (1990) pointed out that at the time, the country of Cameroon's largest linguistic group, Fang, constituted only 19% of the total Cameroonian population, and was thus a minority in the country.
Socio-political definitions: 'Minority languages are those which a given population perceives to be minority ones', or even 'those languages whose speakers, the linguistic minority, feel their language as threatened.' Such definitions have several issues in that they tend to be subjective, used for political campaigning to urge political and legal institutions to officially recognise them, and to suffer from Eurocentrism.
Ethno-social definitions: Allardt (1984) proposed a definition of "minority language" based on four criteria: "self-categorization, common descent, distinctive linguistic, cultural or historic traits related to language, social organization of the interaction of language groups in such a fashion that the group becomes placed in a minority position." Owens (2013) pointed out that these criteria are 'useful', but in practice, many suggested "minority languages" cannot fulfill all four criteria simultaneously; for example, some members of proposed linguistic minorities do not self-categorise with it, or do not claim common descent with all other members. Finally, the social organisation of a linguistic minority into a (political) minority position is problematic for various reasons, such as situations in which the politically dominant linguistic group in society is outnumbered by a politically marginalised group. As an example, Owens stated that French-speaking colonists (Pied-Noirs) in French Algeria were a demographic minority, but marginalised the Arabic-speaking majority population (along with Berber-speaking groups such as the Kabyles), leaving open the question which language should be considered a "minority language" or not in this situation.
"regional or minority languages" means languages that are:
traditionally used within a given territory of a State by nationals of that State who form a group numerically smaller than the rest of the State's population; and
different from the official language(s) of that State;
it does not include either dialects of the official language(s) of the State or the languages of migrants;
"territory in which the regional or minority language is used" means the geographical area in which the said language is the mode of expression of a number of people justifying the adoption of the various protective and promotional measures provided for in this Charter;
"non-territorial languages" means languages used by nationals of the State which differ from the language or languages used by the rest of the State's population but which, although traditionally used within the territory of the State, cannot be identified with a particular area thereof.
Attitudes towards the Charter
The signatories that have not yet ratified it as of 2012 are Azerbaijan, France, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, North Macedonia, Malta, and Moldova. Refraining from signing or ratifying the Charter is also caused by the refusal (for instance, in Estonia or Malta) to recognize such postimperialworld languages as English, French or Russian as minority languages, even if they are spoken by minority populations. The symbolic, cultural and political power vested in such world languages empowers any demographically minority population to such a degree that any additional rights (for example, the status of a minority language) granted to their given world language may precipitate the rapid decline of the state (national) language in favor of the world language. That is the situation in Belarus, where after 1995 Russian empowered as an 'equal co-official language' marginalized the use of Belarusian. The Charter was employed to achieve the same effect in Ukraine after 2010 by marginalizing Ukrainian through empowered Russian, a scenario which was only prevented by the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.
Minority languages may be marginalised within nations for a number of reasons. These include having a relatively small number of speakers, a decline in the number of speakers, and popular belief that these speakers are uncultured, or primitive, or the minority language is a dialect of the dominant language. Support for minority languages is sometimes viewed as supporting separatism, for example, the ongoing revival of the Celtic languages in the British Isles and France (Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish and Breton). The dominant culture may consider use of immigrant minority languages to be a threat to unity, indicating that such communities are not integrating into the larger culture. Both of these perceived threats are based on the notion of the exclusion of the majority language speakers. Often this is added to by political systems by not providing support (such as education and policing) in these languages.
Speakers of majority languages can and do learn minority languages, through the large number of courses available. It is not known whether most students of minority languages are members of the minority community re-connecting with the community's language, or others seeking to become familiar with it.
Views differ as to whether the protection of official languages by a state representing the majority speakers violates the human rights of minority speakers. In March 2013, Rita Izsák, UN Independent Expert on minority issues, said that "protection of linguistic minority rights is a human rights obligation and an essential component of good governance, efforts to prevent tensions and conflict, and the construction of equal and politically and socially stable societies".
In Slovakia for example, the Hungarian community generally considers the 'language law' enacted in 1995 to be discriminatory and inconsistent with the European Charter for the Protection of Regional or Minority languages. The Majority Slovaks believed that minority speakers' rights are guaranteed, in accordance with the highest European standards, and are not discriminated against by the state language having preferential status. The language law declares that "the Slovak language enjoys a preferential status over other languages spoken on the territory of the Slovak Republic." As a result of a 2009 amendment, a fine of up to €5,000 may be imposed for a misdemeanor from the regulations protecting the preferential status of the state language, e.g. if the name of a shop or a business is indicated on a sign-board first in the minority language and only after it in Slovak, or if in a bilingual text, the minority language part is written with bigger fonts than its Slovak equivalent, or if the bilingual text on a monument is translated from the minority language to the dominant language and not vice versa, or if a civil servant or doctor communicates with a minority speaker citizen in a minority language in a local community where the proportion of the minority speakers is less than 20%.
Sign languages are often not recognized as true natural languages, although extensive research supports the case that they are independent languages.
Belgium: From Belgium's founding in 1830, the government had promoted French as the sole national language. The marginalised Dutch-language community, generally known as Flemish people, gradually managed to emancipate itself through the Flemish Movement, and in 1898 the Equality Law (Dutch: Gelijkheidswet) first recognised Dutch as equal to French in judicial matters (legal documents). The 1919 annexation of the mostly German-speaking Eupen-Malmedy area in to Belgium also led to a movement for the recognition of German as a local minority language. By 1930, a rough agreement had emerged that Belgian citizens should be able to communicate with the authorities in their native language in the municipalities where it constituted the majority of speakers. According to the "Law of 28 June 1932 on the use of languages in administrative matters" (Dutch: Wet van 28 juni 1932 op het gebruik van de talen in bestuurszakenLoi du 28 juin 1932 relative à l'emploi des langues en matière administrative), the municipalities of Belgium were considered "bilingual" if speakers of a minority language constituted at least 30% of the municipal population, which meant that the linguistic minority was entitled to certain rights. To determine these percentages, reference was made to the linguistic census (Dutch: talentellingFrench: recensement linguistique). The first census, held in 1846, was widely regarded as scholarly reliable regarding the numbers of speakers; however, from the second linguistic census of 1886 onwards, the methodology of the census changed, pressure on citizens to report speaking or knowing the French language increased, more and more cases of fraud were found, and the reliability of the results was increasingly questioned by scholars and Flemish activists. For example, a 1933 investigation concluded that in 22 of the 23 language border municipalities in which the 1930 census was conducted, the results were incorrect, and in each case, the incorrect results favoured the French language; moreover, some 'language inspectors' tasked with checking the accuracy results had received death threats. The legal effect of the censuses was that certain previously monolingually-Dutch municipalities became bilingual or even monolingually-French, and further stimulated the Francization of Brussels. The most controversial language census of 1947 led to an uproar of Flemish protest and the eventual abolition of the controversial language censuses. Finally, the Belgian language border was made permanent in 1963. The remaining 27 Municipalities with language facilities have been a continuous source of controversy in Belgian politics, focusing on the interpretation and legality of the 1997 Peeters directive, which held that the facilities were temporary measures that should eventually be abolished after the French-speaking minorities in the Dutch-language area had sufficiently learnt the Dutch language.
These are languages that have the status of a national language and are spoken by the majority population in at least one country, but lack recognition in other countries, even where there is a significant minority linguistic community:
Albanian – recognized minority language in many countries, including Romania, but not recognized as a minority language in Greece, where 4% of the population are ethnic Albanians.
Bulgarian – recognized minority language in the Czech Republic (4,300 speakers), but not officially recognized as minority language in Greece.
Hungarian: official in Hungary, and co-official in Serbia's Vojvodina province (293,000 speakers). It is a recognised minority language in the Czech Republic (14,000 speakers), and in Romania (1,447,544 speakers, 6.7% of the population), in those communities where the Hungarian speakers exceed 20% of the population; in Slovakia (520,000 speakers, approximately 10% of the population); in Slovenia (6,243 speakers in 2002), and in Ukraine (170,000 speakers).
Polish – recognized minority language in the Czech Republic (51,000 speakers), but it is not officially recognized as a minority language in Lithuania.
Romanian: official in Romania and co-official in Vojvodina province, Serbia, with (30,000 speakers), but it does not have official status in Serbia, where another 5300 speakers live outside this province. Note: Ethnologue estimates 250,000 Romanian speakers in Serbia. It is a minority language in northwestern Bulgaria (estimated 10,566 speakers); and in Ukraine (estimated 450,000 speakers).
Russian: official in Russia, and co-official in Belarus and Kazakhstan. It lacks official status in Estonia and Latvia, likely for historical reasons following Russian dominance during the Soviet Union era. (More than 25% of the population in the latter two nations are Russian speakers).
Scottish Gaelic: 87,000 people with some ability, 57,375 of which are first and second language speakers. Official status in Scotland, UK. 300 native speakers, 2,320 overall in Canada, minority status. About 1,900-speaker minority in the United States.
Sardinian: 1,350,000 native (first or second language) speakers, more with some knowledge, regional official status in Sardinia
Corsican: 125,000 native (first or second language) speakers; regional co-official status in Corsica
Languages with no official status
Main article: List of largest languages without official status
A treasure language is one of the thousands of small languages still spoken in the world today. The term was proposed by the Rama people of Nicaragua as an alternative to heritage language, indigenous language, and "ethnic language", names that are considered pejorative in the local context. The term is now also used in the context of public storytelling events.
The term "treasure language" references the desire of speakers to sustain the use of their mother tongue into the future:
[The] notion of treasure fit the idea of something that had been buried and almost lost, but was being rediscovered and now shown and shared. And the word treasure also evoked the notion of something belonging exclusively to the Rama people, who now attributed it real value and had become eager and proud of being able to show it to others.
Accordingly, the term is distinct from endangered language for which objective criteria are available, or heritage language which describes an end-state for a language where individuals are more fluent in a dominant language.