Speaking in tribute to the European day of languages on Wednesday (26 September), Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou said it was a time to “celebrate” multilingualism in all its forms, but that immigrants must learn the language of their “host” country.
“We celebrate all the languages that are spoken within the European Union on this day, whether they are national, regional languages or minority languages or languages spoken by immigrants,” said Vassiliou, the EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth.
However, she also insisted that immigrants should respect the language obligations of the countries in which they reside.
In response to a question from EurActiv on whether EU citizens with a foreign background should be targeted in their native language in election campaigns, she said: "If we want the integration of various communities in the host country, they have to learn [its] official languages.”
“Let us differentiate between facilitating and encouraging and learning of the languages of the immigrants."
Multilingualism is a hot topic in Belgium, where Vassiliou was speaking, both because its capital, Brussels, is the seat of the institutions of the European Union, which has 23 official working languages, and because of the linguistic differences that divide the country. The official languages of Belgium are French, spoken in the Walloon south and widely in Brussels, Dutch in the Flemish north, and German, spoken by a minority close to the border with Germany.
The tensions caused when a French-speaker, or Walloon, does not know Dutch - and vice-versa - are well publicised.
But a different facet of Belgium’s multilingualism made waves in the press this week, when five young candidates from the Humanist Democratic Centre (CDH) presented descriptions of themselves for local elections only in Turkish.
Despite the publicity appearing in a Belgian edition of a Turkish-language newspaper, Yeni Vatan, its monolingualism was against party rules. CDH, an affiliate of the European People's Party, says that "a small sentence" in Turkish may appear in their campaign messages, but its main content should be in French or in Dutch.
“The use of another language is only allowed if it is a complementary translation of all or a part of the communication made in French or Dutch”, says the CDH.
Other candidates have undertaken publicity campaigns in Polish.
“In this particular case of the elections, I think Belgium has more than one official language, so it is very important for the immigrants to learn the official languages of the country”, Vassiliou told reporters.
‘Fact of life’
The commissioner said it was a “fact of life” that English was the dominant foreign language in Europe and that in most countries the youth choose to learn it.
“But this is not enough”, she said. “English is the lingua franca, but I think the benefit of learning and speaking other foreign languages is immense. It provides better opportunities to get to know each other”, she added.
Despite the admirable goal of being pro-integration, many employees of the EU institutions do not speak at least one of the official languages of Belgium, and fewer still participate in local elections.