Learning foreign languages can become a way for Europeans to exit the economic doldrums and find employment opportunities across borders, says language and culture Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou.

As well as producing more mobile and language-savvy citizens, European institutions and businesses should learn to better cope with a multilingual society, Vassiliou told a conference of policymakers and academics at the European Economic and Social Committee on Tuesday (5 March), an EU consultative body.

“If we want more mobile students and workers, and businesses that can operate on a European and world scale, we need better language competences – and these must be better targeted to the current and future needs of the labour market,” she said.

The latest European Commission figures show that in 2011 just 42% of European 15-year-olds were competent in their first foreign language, despite often having learned it from seven years of age. Furthermore, the figure differed hugely across different EU countries, with 82% for Sweden and just 9% for Britain.

The commissioner added that fostering languages was about more than employment for professional linguists, translators and interpreters.

“Our society will always need language specialists - professional linguists translating or interpreting, such as those people in the booths covering our proceedings today,” she said. “But languages, like politics, are too important to our lives to be left to specialists only.”

Elephant in the room

The commissioner also spoke of the position of English as the EU’s lingua franca - once an “elephant in the room” in Brussels - but added that learning it should not come at the expense of other languages.

“While English may be seen as a ‘basic skill’ today … I am still absolutely convinced that it is more and more the knowledge of other languages that can make the difference in getting a job and progressing in one’s career,” she said.

The commissioner spoke at the British Council-hosted conference, called Language Rich Europe, on how the EU can better make use of and cope with its linguistic diversity.

Brussels has adopted a multilingualism strategy which aims for each citizen to have acquired practical skills in at least two languages other than their mother tongue, nicknamed “mother tongue plus two”.

Kristina Cunningham, the head of Vassiliou’s multilingualism department, said the economic crisis had convinced policymakers to revisit the strategy, proposing a European benchmark for language acquisition.

“This should measure on the one hand the percentage of pupils learning at least two foreign languages, and on the other the level of competences in the first foreign language studied,” Vassiliou added.

“It is my hope that this proposal will be adopted next year.”