Two tongues spoil tale of cultural mix
But the nationalist Slovakian government has embarked on a campaign to prioritise the majority language, which is meeting with fierce resistance from the country's minority Hungarian community.
The focus of the protests is the Alternative Education Programme, education minister Eva Slavkovska's new decree on minority language which allows parents to opt for Slovak instruction in currently exclusively Hungarian language schools. The Slovak government say this will give parents freedom of choice and improve minority language skills.
But Hungarian community leaders claim the move amounts to forced introduction of bilingual education. "There already is freedom of choice," said Eva Toth, a teacher in a Hungarian language school in Komarno. "More than 20 per cent of Hungarian families send their children to Slovak-speaking schools."
She believes Hungarians already have enough incentives to be bilingual. "In Hungarian language schools the children learn Slovak as a second language. If they want to go to university or get a good job they know they must learn Slovak. There is absolutely no need for this decree - the real aim is political, to close exclusively Hungarian schools. The language is the basis of our culture and the Slovak government doesn't support our culture."
The minority language plan was recently approved by the Slovak Nationality Council which monitors laws relating to minorities. The council ruled that the decree is constitutional as long as it remains optional. Recent Slovak government statements have stressed that changes will only come about if parents want them.
But according to Attila Fodor, chair of the Komarno branch of the Democratic Federation of Hungarian Teachers, the government is "putting pressure on parents and headteachers to introduce Slovak teaching. Five Hungarian headteachers have been fired already."
In the town of Filakovo, the secondary school was split into two institutions, one teaching in Slovak, one in Hungarian. When two headteacher candidates applied for the Slovak school and one for the Hungarian school, the ministry ignored the Hungarian candidate and appointed the Slovak runner-up.
Attila Fodor believes the nationalist government of Vladimir Meciar is returning to Communist-era central control methods. Slovak schools have been given more control over their curriculums and budgets since the collapse of Communism and school governors' councils have been set up with teacher, parent and local government representatives. But the education ministry has recently limited the councils' powers. Attila Fodor believes language policy and headteacher appointments should be left to governors. "The Slovak government is returning to dictatorial methods of central control," he said.
In southern Slovakia, where the majority of the 400,000-strong Hungarian community live, this term opened with student strikes and demonstrations against the language decree and in support of the sacked heads.
Milan Ferko, the Slovak government official responsible for the new language law, believes the criticism is unfounded, saying the decree is an expression of Slovakians' new-found independence. "Hungarian extremists are trying to exploit this for political capital."
* In Romania, which has a large Hungarian population based in Transylvania, a new education law specifies that certain subjects, such as geography and history must be taught in Romanian regardless of whether there are any Romanian pupils in the class.
The law also demands that university entrance exams be taken in Romanian. According to Attila Veresstoy, a senator for the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, this will drive children towards secondary school education in Romanian and there will be no chance for them to develop their their mother tongue."