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Languages in Central Europe
Languages in Central Europe
Central Europe, because of its rich heritage of nationalities, likewise is home to many languages. Some languages enjoy national status and thus are taught in schools and used widely in the media. Others however are only regional languages or minority languages and thus are sadly in danger of eventual extinction even though efforts are underway to try to preserve them.
German has the largest number of native speakers in the region and acts as the single "official" language of Austria, Germany and Liechtenstein. In Switzerland, German is the mother tongue of 2/3 of the population and the dominant language of the four official Swiss languages (German, French, Italian & Romansh). There is a small German speaking minority to be found in Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary. It is also spoken outside Central Europe in eastern Belgium and France, and northern Italy (mainly in the region of South Tyrol/Alto Adige). German can be very diverse and appears in many different colorful dialects particular in the Southern German-speaking world (Southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and South Tyrol) were tradition and dialect remains strong.
Czech and Slovak are very closely related and are mutually intelligible. The Sorbian language(s) spoken in eastern Germany near the Polish frontier is also a close relative.
Polish is the dominant language in all regions of Poland and in a tiny border region of the Czech Republic. Kashubian, a regional Slavonic language, is spoken in the region around Gdansk in Pomerania in northern Poland. Silesian is a regional language/dialect, (depending on who you ask) found in southwest Poland.
Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages for other Europeans to learn, as it originates from a different language family and is related to Finnish and Estonian. There are 5 million Hungarian speakers living outside Hungary in neighboring countries such as Romania (Transylvania), northern Serbia, eastern Austria and southern Slovakia.
French or Italian are spoken by the majority of the population in the southern and western regions of Switzerland, while Swiss German is commonly taught as a second language. French plays a historic role in alpine northern Italy in the French border regions.
In the Swiss Canton of Graubünden or Grison, Romansh is spoken as a regional language. Almost all Romansh speakers speak either Swiss German and/or Italian as well. It is closely related to Ladin which is spoken in a few mountain valleys of northern Italy and is another endangered regional language. Sadly it is being replaced by German or Italian.
Slovenian is the official language of Slovenia, but it is also spoken by the Slovenian minorities in southern Austria, northeastern Italy and western Hungary. There is also a small Croatian minority in Austria's Burgenland. Sorbian, Frisian and Low German are Germany's three native minority languages with exception of Roma. Sorbian is related to Polish and Czech and can be found spoken in both the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg. All Sorbs speak German as well and the current Minister President (Governor) of the German federal-state of Saxony is even Sorbian! Frisian is related to English and Dutch and is spoken by tiny minority communities in Schleswig-Holstein and Niedersachsen and neighboring communities in the Netherlands.
Lastly, Low German is spoken by rural communities or as a second language by a few in most federal states of northern Germany and still has a significant role to play in the city states of Bremen, Hamburg and Luebeck and in the states of Niedersachsen, Schleswig-Holstein and particular in the eastern federal-state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. All three German minority languages are endangered languages. Efforts are underway to preserve the languages and their culture but it is seemingly a losing battle.
Finding people who speak and understand English is not a problem in most regions of Central Europe, especially in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. In Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, English is widely spoken in the larger cities and by younger people; German and Russian are also spoken and understood by many older people in these countries. Russian, since the end of the Cold War and the unification of Europe is in steady decline. Today German remains important, more for financial and economic reasons instead of cultural or political reasons, as was the case in the past. Slovenians and the Swiss by far lead the region in their ability to speak many different tongues.
The Most Frequently Asked Travel Questions about Central Europe
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Central Europe Travel Guide from Wikitravel. Many thanks to all Wikitravel contributors. Text is available under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0, images are available under various licenses, see each image for details.