Uwe Mohr is project director of Poliglotti4.eu – a project by the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC) that aims to set up an online Language Observatory to document best practice regarding the implementation of multilingualism.
Mohr is also director of the language department at the Goethe Institut Brüssel.
He was speaking to EurActiv's Outi Alapekkala.
What is the project Poliglotti4.eu about?
The project results form the work and findings of the Civil Society Platform to promote multilingualism in Europe, established by the European Commission. That platform has worked for one year and produced a Policy Paper for the European Commission.
Our platform assembled a variety of representatives from all fields of civil society and non-formal education: translation, interpretation, subtitling, media, language learning, social cohesion and social services, migrants, minority languages, language policy planning, etc. And we were tasked with developing a policy paper to advise the European Commission on the new directive that comes out in cooperation with the member states.
The report, entailing lots of appendices and best practice examples, has just been finished. In the report’s conclusion the continuation of the platform is recommended.
The idea was that the policy paper should result in a project – and that’s where ‘Poliglotti4.eu’ started. So we took up some ideas that came up in the context of the platform and made a project out of it. This is a project in the context of the EU’s Lifelong Learning programme.
The main outcome of the project will be an interactive website that will also be an online linguistic observatory for multilingualism. It will seek to unite all sorts of information that could be relevant to someone who is interested in the state of multilingualism in Europe - not only to the members of that platform but also to other civil society organisations, as well as to teachers and educators.
The idea is to do some research on certain topics and to present tools, but also to discuss issues of common interest, to include interactive elements like Facebook, Twitter and blogging. We will also have ambassadors for multilingualism with video testimonials.
So the final product of your project is the website?
Yes, it is the main product. But we will also publish brochures and organise conferences. And we do a lot of lobbying and networking of course, to increase the impact of the project and to disseminate our findings.
What exactly will be put on the website?
It will host video testimonials by famous people from all walks of life – cultural and business people, politicians, journalists – who will explain why the acquisition of languages has helped them in their career and why they need several languages in their professional and private life. They will also give their testimonial in different languages.
Hopefully we will have some discussion on Facebook, Twitter and chatting with other people – it’s open for everybody, of course.
Then we will have research, done as a result of the Civil Society Platform paper. There is a group of experts doing research via questionnaires and telephone interviews.
The fields covered in the research are early language learning, lifelong learning and social community services. The idea is to give some good examples and show best practices in, for example, hospitals and police stations, registration and immigration offices, where they actually have a good language policy.
This is because some of those institutions already have a language policy, meaning that if you do not speak the language of that country you still have a chance to communicate - because that’s the main problem.
We have all been in a foreign country and not spoken the language – so we want to know how you can cope in those situations - are you lost or can you try with a little bit of English, or are there specific policies in place and people capable of speaking other languages?
In hospital or at the police, for example, it can be a life-saving mechanism. And I feel that we are still at the very beginning with all these things and the Commission is interested in learning about good examples.
How do you define or choose what is a good example?
The big advantage of our project group is the networks we have. Because our group consists of head organisations and they all have networks in their countries.
So if we can activate all these people to help and give us advice, good hints and recommendations, then we can actually reach out to a lot of people. The idea is to have a big impact and a broad geographical reach.
You say you will set up an online linguistic observatory for multilingualism. What exactly does the word ‘observatory’ refer to here?
It is just a technical word – but it is about presenting the situation as it is right now and trying to give an overview of the different aspects and provide some examples of good practice.
Who is the final product aimed at?
It is aimed at teachers, educators, policymakers, civil society organisations and the general public.
How can teachers benefit from this?
We deal with adult education, lifelong learning and early-language learning. If you work in this field, we present some good examples on, for example, when it is good to start foreign language learning and with how many languages at the same time.
We will also show what sort of experiences others have had on the same issues.
The idea is also to bring people together to discuss – so if you see a good example you can contact this person or school directly.
How do you cover the social services field?
This is very broad and includes, for example, the police, registration and immigration offices, hospitals, as well as public transport. Some misunderstandings can be funny when you are a tourist, but they can also be dangerous – for example, if you have an accident or similar.
It is a big challenge. Theoretically, it should all already work in a modern and globalised world - but it doesn’t really. And what do you do then?
It is a very slow process and the Commission, as well as others, is very much interested in that, because we will need all this if it is going to work with the supposedly free exchange of people, services, goods, etc.
So theoretically it is all possible but then we come to our limits with the daily routine, because the language is missing.
This is also why we try to give surveys of some good translation and multilingual tools, which might help you to translate - at least up to a certain level - simple texts.
There are a lot of things going on in this field. There is Google Translation, but there are a lot of other things as well. And I think that this will become more common in the next years – we will all need it, probably. It is a big field and we are trying to get an idea of what’s going on there as well.
On our site, we will have links to reference guides and dictionaries, but also to information about events and conferences dedicated to multilingualism. There will also be news and publications, a document library, presentation of research and policy papers. It is meant to be quite comprehensive.
When are you planning to conclude the project?
It is a two-year project, so we should be done by the end of next year (2012). And the website will hopefully be on after this summer.
Does your project contribute to the 2012 review of the EU multilingualism strategy?
The idea is that our project will influence the Commission’s ideas. Hopefully it will have a certain impact – just like the policy paper we’ve finished in the framework of the Civil Society Platform.
How do you want your project influence the policy review? How would you like to shape the EU multilingualism strategy?
We give good examples, show how progress can be made and raise awareness. There are people who are already convinced of the importance of multilingualism. But there are still many who do not see the importance of learning foreign languages, and the Commission is trying to work on that through many initiatives - and we are trying to contribute to that.
We can also become a good reference for people who want to find out what multilingualismall is about.
In the end, we will contribute to shaping the strategy together with the Business platform for promoting multilingualism and the member states.
So you are both promoting multilingualism as a policy and seeking concrete tools for it, to solve communication problems?
Yes. 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. English doesn’t always work, like for example in China.
The more global and international we get, the more we have to deal with cultures that are quite foreign, with languages that we don’t know, and the more important it becomes to have some sort of tool. In our project we are trying to concentrate on the non-commercial tools.
Do you have any special message to convey?
I think that it is very important to continue the work. We always propose goals, but then we need to see where the reality is.
The Commission talks about one main language plus two foreign languages as a goal. This is set through the Barcelona language learning targets. But the reality is not yet there and that is a big problem.
Some elites already have this knowledge and speak two foreign languages reasonably well, but a normal person doesn’t normally have this capacity yet in almost any country.
Here, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries are a big exception because people usually speak two or three foreign languages. But if you look no further than Germany, most people don’t speak two foreign languages. They might speak English reasonably well, but that’s it.
Although everybody thinks nowadays that everybody speaks good English, that is not true. So there is a lot to be done and we should not expect too much. We should have a lot of patience and we have to try to keep it realistic.
I don’t think we will ever have a situation where everybody speaks three foreign languages. Socially disadvantaged groups might, for example, have problems even with their own language. So how can we motivate and convince people who are unemployed or have other existential problems to learn other languages?
But why do we need to convince people to learn foreign languages? I understand that EU policy starts from the basis that multilingualism is a good thing. But it is just an EU goal in a paper.
Take, for example, a Turkish immigrant worker in Germany – many of those don’t even master their own language. The prospects of these people are very bad. They won’t find a good job in Germany because they don’t speak German and they will probably end up with some sort of crime or drug problem, and then people will think that all Turks are criminals. Prejudices that should have been overcome by now will be confirmed.
So it is a whole chain of events. If we manage to educate these people better, we also do a lot for the community and change the attitudes of people. 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. But it is not an easy task and it is a problem we have more and more in all our countries.
That is also why we are all discussing it. Belgium, for example, is discussing how to deal with its migrant workers, as they have more and more foreign people now. So the issue is global and very topical, and will certainly influence the future of our societies.