The conference was set up to "identify areas where further action on languages is needed at both national and EU levels" and aimed to define common actions to be taken over the next three to five years. The Commission expects to use the results of the conference as "the basis for its Communication to the Parliament and the Council proposing a comprehensive language policy to be published during 2008."
Two aspects to upcoming EU strategy
The new strategy will have a "management" aspect whereby the challenge would be to address the "sustainability" of EU language policy following the 2004 enlargement, Commissioner Orban's spokesperson Pietro Petrucci told EurActiv.
Petrucci indicated that the bulk of the funding for the multilingualism portfolio went on translation and interpreting, with 15% available for the commissioner’s own policies. But this was "the cost of democracy," as using and being understood in your own language was an EU right, he said.
Moreover, the new strategy would have a political aspect whereby the Commission would attempt to bring cultural, national identity and business issues - as well as those related to the integration of migrants - together into a "comprehensive" policy, Petrucci said.
Personal adoptive language
Meanwhile, Commissioner Orban supported a 'personal adoptive language' proposal contained in the report of the High Level Group on Multilingualism and reiterated that speaking two foreign languages in addition to the mother tongue should be the goal for EU citizens.
A second, 'personal adoptive' foreign language could be a means of discovering the culture, history and literature of the country in which the language is spoken, he said. This view was echoed by Slovene Education Minister Milan Zver, who declared that the personal adoptive language idea was "the concept of the future".
The second foreign language would complement a first one most likely acquired for professional reasons. The conference also emphasised a lifelong learning aspect, identifying holidaying retired people and skilled workers as sections of the population who would benefit from an increased emphasis on language learning outside of formal educational settings.
Business still to be convinced
But the business world is yet to be fully convinced of the practicality of this. Viscount Etienne Davignon, chairman of the Business Forum, warned that it was important to "strike the right balance" in promoting multiple languages as it was "simply a fact" that a single language benefits EU business.
Although business does not believe that all Europe's problems would be solved by speaking one language, "English helps in a number of areas" and particularly "internally in businesses", Davignon explained, and thus "it is one of the languages that we have to master".
Language and cultural identity
Ministers emphasised the central role played by the mother tongue in preserving the cultural identity of ethnic minorities and immigrants, and that of the host language in promoting societal integration. Commissioner Orban said that preserving the mother tongue "enhances the self-image" of young immigrants in the host country.
Asked whether the proposal to learn a second adoptive language could be seen by citizens as a "dilution of national identity", Orban conceded that languages were occasionally used as "weapons" because multilingualism is a "very sensitive" and "very political" subject.
The ideas put forward at the conference would be included in the conclusions on multilingualism to be adopted by ministers during May's Council meeting, said Zver.