By the end of 2012, the EU will have an online observatory for multilingualism, which will document best practice in implementing language policies and showcase concrete tools for solving everyday communication problems. Uwe Mohr, head of the EU project 'Poliglotti4.eu', spoke to EurActiv in an interview.
Launched earlier this year, the Poliglotti4.eu project aims to gather information on multilingualism in Europe and develop an interactive website that will serve as an online observatory.
Aimed particularly at policymakers, teachers and civil society organisations, the portal will include links to reference guides and dictionaries, news, publications, research and policy papers and give information about events dedicated to multilingualism.
The project will conduct research in the fields of early language learning, lifelong learning and social community services. It will also present good practice examples and tools used across Europe to ease communication in situations where there is no common language.
"You may speak four languages but you will never speak 24 of them, so then you need to rely on other tools and try to figure out how to communicate" bearing in mind that English doesn't always work, argued Mohr, the director of the project.
Language and social community services
While in our modern and globalised world there "theoretically" should not be many communication problems at police stations, immigration offices, hospitals and on public transport, and everything should work, "it doesn't really," Mohr said.
"Misunderstandings can be funny when you are a tourist, but they can also be dangerous," he noted, referring to a situation involving an accident, for example. In such context, a good language policy in a hospital can be "a life-saving mechanism," he noted.
Some institutions already have specific language policies, meaning that if you do not speak the language of that country you still have a chance to communicate. Poliglotti4.eu seeks to document these examples in order to allow others to learn from them.
"I feel that we are still at the very beginning with all these things," but the European Commission is very much interested in solving the language-related communication problems in various social services because if the supposedly free exchange of people, services and goods is going to work, "we will need all this," Mohr said.
However, it is a big challenge and will be a slow process, he predicted.
But the more global and international we get, the more we have to deal with cultures that are quite foreign and languages that we don't know, Mohr said, stressing the growing importance of having tools that can help translate simple texts "at least up to a certain level".
He predicted that Google Translate-style translation tools will become more common in the coming years.
EU language learning targets 'not realistic'
With a specific focus on language learning, the Poliglotti4.eu online observatory will document good practice on language learning. For example, the site will give advice about the best moment to start learning a foreign language and how many languages can be learned at the same time.
This will allow teachers to learn from the experiences of their colleagues across Europe, Mohr explained.
The official EU goal, enshrined in the Barcelona language learning targets, is for all Europeans to speak one main language plus two foreign languages.
But Mohr noted that while "some elites" already speak two foreign languages reasonably well, "the reality is not yet there" as a "normal person" doesn't have this capacity.
The same applies even to English, Mohr continued. "Although everybody thinks nowadays that everybody speaks good English, that is not true," he said.
Belgium, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries represent "a big exception" as their people usually speak two or three foreign languages.
A lot remains to be done, expectations should not be too high and EU objectives need to be kept "realistic", Mohr said, expressing doubt that everyone will be able to speak three languages one day.
Migration a topical issue
Meanwhile, Mohr stressed the importance of learning foreign languages.
With regard to Poliglotti4eu project's research on social community services, he highlighted in particular the issue of helping migrant workers learn the language of their host country.
He said migrant workers, who sometimes don't even master their own language, will have a hard time finding a good job if they don't learn the language of their host country. And as the number of foreign people in different EU countries is increasing, the "issue is global and very topical, and will certainly influence the future of our societies," Mohr predicted.
"We need to give everyone the chance to get out of these disadvantaged situations and try to convince them that language learning could be good for them," Mohr concluded.
A two-year project, Poliglotti4eu should finalise its work by the end of 2012, but the website could be up and running after the summer.