The rights of national minorities and the teaching of foreign languages in the Czech Republic

The political or military delineation of borders frequently results in members of various ethnic groups who speak different, mutually incomprehensible languages suddenly finding themselves in one country. Even though both ethnic groups have lived within the territory in question for hundreds of years (even thousands of years, in the case of the Poles in Těšín for instance), by virtue of a political act the members of one nationality suddenly find themselves in a country whose official language is their own, while the second group find themselves in a country which does not even recognise their language as being official.

Just like Czechs who emigrated for various reasons (to Romania, Croatia, South America, the USA, etc.), some other foreigners are attempting to preserve their mother tongue and other cultural traditions in a new country, even though they feel happy and are satisfied with life there. Every country can help such people in this endeavour, not only because members of different nationalities have a human right to this, but also because they thus support the development of a multicultural environment and further the potential of human society. Not for nothing do people say: “The number of languages you know is the number of people you are.” Human rights, including the right to be taught in a foreign language and the right to learn a foreign language, can be enshrined in law. In the Czech Republic, the rights of ethnic minorities (members of different ethnicities living traditionally or intensively within the CR) are enshrined in the Act on the Rights of Members of National Minorities, as amended.

  • What is...?

Courses in foreign languages: We probably don’t need to be reminded how many opportunities we have these days to learn foreign languages. However, this teaching takes account of the fact that the language is not our mother tongue. It is therefore not in-depth, intensive or fast. We can also travel abroad and undertake a work or study trip. When living in a new environment, we often learn more quickly. However, members of different nationalities frequently live traditionally and need to maintain their own language (their mother tongue, a foreign language for us) more intensively than Czechs. For this reason, they have greater requirements for language instruction.

Compatriot organisations and courses in the mother tongue: If foreigners live in their new country for a longer period of time, they usually gradually feel the need to protect the inheritance of their original traditions. If the legislation of the country in which they live permits it, they can pool their resources and establish various compatriot organisations (organisations of persons born in the same region or country). These organisations can more easily avail themselves of financial and other types of support from the state in order to maintain the traditions of their native culture. The organisations themselves also have the opportunity to earn money through their own efforts. Their activities include the organisation of cultural or sports events, financial appeals, meetings with the local authorities and state bodies, the organisation of children’s camps, and language courses for their compatriots, so that the children of foreigners who were born in the new country do not forget the mother tongue of their parents.

The Act on the Rights of Members of National Minorities, as amended: Act No. 273/2001Coll. was passed on 10 July 2001. It is based on the principles of a democratic state and rule of law, the principle of the protection of human rights (i.e. the right to national or ethnic identity), and it guarantees members of national minorities the right to effective participation in cultural, social and economic life and in public matters, especially those which relate to national minorities. The Act delineates the basic terms (“national minority”, and a member thereof), and in the second section sets out the rights of members of national minorities. It is explicitly stated in the Act: ‘No disadvantage shall ensue to anyone from membership of a national minority.” The Act guarantees the right to the free choice of nationality to members of various ethnic groups, their right of association, their right to participate in the resolution of matters which relate to national minorities, the right to the use of their name and surname in the language of the national minority in question, the right to multi-linguistic names and signs, the right to use the language of the national minority in official contacts with administration and the courts, the right to use the language of the national minority in elections, the right to training in the language of the minority, the right to the development of the culture of the minority, and the right to the expansion and acceptance of information in the language of the minority. The rights of members of a national minority are also specified in more detail in the Administrative Infractions Act, the Municipalities Act, and in the Acts on Communal and Regional Elections, the Education Act, and the Act on the City of Prague, etc.

A member of a national minority under Act No. 273/2001 Coll.: A national minority is a community of citizens of the Czech Republic living in the territory of the current Czech Republic, which differs from other citizens usually in terms of their common ethnic origin, language, culture and traditions, forms a sizeable minority of the population, and at the same time manifests the will to be regarded as a national minority for the purpose of making a joint effort to preserve and develop their own distinctiveness, language and culture, and for the purpose of the expression and protection of the interests of their community, which has been historically created. A member of a national minority is a citizen of the Czech Republic who declares a nationality other than Czech and expresses a wish to be regarded as a member of a national minority together with others who declare the same nationality.

The right to education in the language of the national minority (section 11): (1) members of national minorities who have traditionally lived in the Czech Republic for a long time have the right to upbringing and education in their mother tongue in schools, nurseries, and educational establishments, under the conditions stipulated in special legislation.
(2) Members of national minorities under paragraph 1 may establish, under the conditions stipulated by special legal regulations:
a) private schools using the language of the national minority as the official school language or with classes in the language of the national minority offered as a subject on the curriculum,
b) private preschool facilities and private educational establishments.

Schools using the language of the national minority as the official school language: A school where instruction in all or selected subjects takes place in the language of the national minority.

  • Topic

The application of the rights of members of national minorities and education in their language
In order for the state to ensure the application and enforceability of the rights of members of national minorities in practice, it must establish various other organisations which either supervise compliance with the rights or directly support the application thereof. One of these organisations is the Council of the Government for National Minorities, the members of which are representatives of bodies of public administration, and representatives of the eleven officially recognised national minorities. The Council for National Minorities participated in the creation of the rules pertaining to grant policy (Government Regulation No. 98/2002), through which the right of national minorities to preserve, develop and present their cultures is exercised. As well as this, there are advisory bodies established at various ministries for questions involving national minorities: the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs – the Commission of the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs for the Realisation of Measures for the Support of the Employment of Groups with Difficulty in the Labour Market; the Ministry of Culture – Advisory Board of the 1st Deputy Minister for Questions of Culture of National Minorities, whose members are representatives of national minorities; the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports – Advisory Group for Questions of Education of National Minorities – the aim being to ensure the coordination of approaches within the sphere of the education of national minorities at basic and secondary schools. The Ministry of the Interior also has its own advisory body. The local authorities of the municipalities and regions also have a duty to look after the rights of members of national minorities.

If during the population census that is carried out (every ten years) more than 10% of the population of a specific municipality declare that they belong to a nationality other than Czech or Moravian, the municipality is obliged to establish a “Committee for National Minorities” – a local authority initiative body. Half of the places on the committee must go to members of national minorities. If less than 10% of the population registers as belonging to a nationality other than Czech, the municipality may, but does not have to, establish this body. However, in practice the problem frequently arises that, for various reasons, the members of some nationalities do not declare their nationality. The figures then processed on the basis of the census do not give adequate information. Similarly, a region must establish a “Committee for National Minorities” when 5% or more of people declare themselves as being of a nationality other than Czech. This body is both advisory and provides initiatives.

Thirdly, if 10% or more of citizens in a municipality declare themselves as being of other than Czech or Moravian nationality, instruction must be provided in the language of the national minority under the Education Act.

The current concept for the uniform part of the secondary school-leaving exam envisions the existence of schools offering instruction in the language of a national minority. At the Centre for the Reform of the Secondary School-leaving Examination, national standardised tests have been prepared in the language of national minorities.

  • Stories and examples

Legislation is one thing and practice is another. Even though the law generally places a duty on municipalities to protect the rights of national minorities, municipalities often do not seek concrete resolutions which could really help such minorities. While in Těšín it is commonplace for schools to offer tuition in Polish and for pupils to graduate in Polish, Roma people around the entire republic do not have even one basic school with lessons offered in Romany. Often the state, regional and municipal authorities communicate with a person whom they regard as a representative of the nationality in question, but who in reality is not. We must also remember that after the formulation of legislation there are still many steps before it is implemented in practice, and the law does not address everything. It will continue to depend upon the decisions we make about how we will fulfil the terms not just of the letter of the law, but also its spirit, for which no law can ever be formulated to the finest detail. Let us not forget that it is people who write laws, nothing writes itself.

The socio-historical situation is constantly changing. Some groups may newly strive to obtain the status of national minority in order to benefit from the advantages for maintaining their culture that such status affords. An example currently is the Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic (2011), which for the third year now has been intensively striving to obtain the status of national minority. Many young members of that community already have citizenship. For the time being their endeavour is blocked by the fact that there is still a very small number of citizens of the Czech Republic who belong to the Vietnamese national minority, action directed towards integration in the Czech Republic is very low, and the social legitimacy of the community’s representative organisations is weak. Generally it is very important to consider what interests the given group has in the Czech Republic – whether these interests relate to improving the conditions on all sides of different communities living together in the Czech Republic or whether it is about profit and income that will later be transferred to another country with no consideration for the Czech Republic.

Last updated 25 November 2011

  • Sources


Act No. 273/2001 Coll., on the Rights of Members of National Minorities.

Education Act No. 561/2004 Coll.


Centrum pro reformu maturitní zkoušky

Zhřívalová, P. a Valeš, F. (2006). Koncepce politiky vlády vůči národnostním menšinám, antidiskriminační legislativa v ČR a kompetence územně samosprávných celků v oblasti realizace vládní politiky [Concept for government policy towards national minorities, anti-discriminatory legislation in the Czech Republic, and the competence of the local authorities in the sphere of the implementation of government policy]. Prague: AMČR.

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