Language use in the EU


Promoting a multilingual economy, giving citizens access to European Union information in their own languages and encouraging linguistic diversity through language learning: these are the principles underpinning the Commission's multilingualism policy.

The term 'multilingualism' refers both to a person's ability to use several languages and the co-existence of different language communities in one geographical area. The Commission, while stressing its supporting role behind the member states, says it regards respect for linguistic diversity as a core value of the European Union. 

The importance of multilingualism to the Commission was underlined by the appointment of a commissioner, Leonard Orban, to manage the portfolio for the very first time at the beginning of 2007.

However, a November 2009 reshuffle of the portfolios for José Manuel Barroso's second term at the EU executive's helm saw the dossier become part of the remit of a commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth, to be held by Cypriot Androulla Vassiliou.  

In March 2002, EU heads of state and government meeting in Barcelona called for at least two foreign languages to be taught from a very early age throughout the bloc. In 2003, the Commission committed itself to undertake 45 new actions to encourage national, regional and local authorities to work towards a "major step change in promoting language learning and linguistic diversity".

Examples of Commission support include the pioneering LINGUA programme, which began in 1990. This involved over €30 million of annual investment via the Socrates programme (which includes the well-known Erasmus student mobility schemes) and the Leonardo da Vinci programme. 

The EU executive also provides a range of language learning measures, such as bursaries, to enable language teachers to be trained abroad, place foreign language assistants in schools and fund class exchanges to motivate pupils to learn languages.

Recent programmes implemented in 2007 include 'Culture 2007', 'Youth in Action' and 'Lifelong Learning' and continue to promote multilingualism at EU level.

Moreover, a group of intellectuals was assembled in the context of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue 2008 (EYID 2008) to discuss and define the role of multilingualism in promoting intercultural exchange and understanding. The group, chaired by Franco-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, produced a report, the findings of which were presented by Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban on 31 January 2008.

The Commission took the findings of the Maalouf report into account in preparing its new multilingualism strategy, unveiled by Commissioner Orban on 18 September 2008. 

The Commission believes that in order to trade with companies in other member states, European businesses need skills in the languages of the EU as well as those of their other trading partners around the globe. This is particularly true for medium-sized, high-growth, job-creating companies, which are the main drivers for innovation, employment and social and local integration throughout the Union.

The Commission says that the situation can and must improve and is therefore urging member states to take additional measures to promote widespread individual multilingualism and to foster a society that respects the linguistic identity of all its citizens.

The Commission's multilingualism policy has three aims:

  1. To encourage language learning and the promotion of linguistic diversity in society;
  2. promote a healthy multilingual economy, and; 
  3. give citizens access to EU legislation, procedures and information in their own language. 

1. Encouraging language learning and the promotion of linguistic diversity in society

The Commission defines language as an integral part of a person's identity and culture. It argues that learning foreign languages also necessitates understanding other people and their way of thinking to oppose intolerance, xenophobia and racism.

The percentage of primary school pupils learning a foreign language is increasing but the average number of foreign languages taught in secondary schools is still some way from the Barcelona Summit 2002 target of at least two foreign languages taught from a very early age.

Progress towards the 'mother tongue plus two foreign languages' goal is slow. Half of the EU citizens polled in a recent Eurobarometer survey say they can hold a conversation in at least one language other than their mother tongue. At the top of the class come the Luxembourgers (99%), Latvians and Maltese (93%) and Lithuanians (90%), while Hungarians (71%), citizens in the UK (70%), Spain, Italy and Portugal (64% each) tend to master only their mother tongue.

In terms of measuring the foreign language skills of young people, work on the European Indicator of Language Competence is already well advanced and will supply policymakers with invaluable information. To further improve the situation, the Commission recommends further development of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), whereby pupils learn a particular subject, for example maths or science, through the medium of a foreign language.

The Commission also suggests that higher education institutions play a more active role in promoting multilingualism among students and staff as well as the wider local community. It warns that the trend in non-English-speaking countries towards teaching through the medium of English instead of through the national or regional language may have "unforeseen consequences" for the vitality of those languages.

On the feasibility study for the creation of a European Agency for Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity, the Commission believes that setting up a European network of 'Language Diversity Centres' is a better option than creating an agency and will examine the possibility of financing it on a multi-annual basis through the 'Lifelong Learning' programme.

The independent group of intellectuals  set up by the Commission issued a report on 31 January 2008 entitled 'A Rewarding Challenge: How the multiplicity of languages could strengthen Europe'. The group encouraged EU citizens to learn at least two foreign languages and proposed the concept of the 'personal adoptive language'. The report envisages every European learning a foreign language for personal reasons, perhaps the language of a spouse or out of a desire to learn about another culture, to be adopted in addition to a first foreign language learnt for the purposes of international communication. The group believes this will ensure that Europeans can speak languages other than their mother tongue or the one they use for professional or communication reasons.    

2. The multilingual economy 

The role of intercultural communication skills in global marketing and sales strategies is growing. Reacting to evidence that European companies are losing business because they cannot speak their customers' languages, the Commission published a study on the impact of the shortage of language skills on the EU economy in December 2006.

The study clearly revealed the link between languages and export sales, indicating that a language strategy is a significant element of the overall success of every European business. The Commission is well aware of the importance of effective language policies in supporting business development, and calls for language certification to be standardised throughout the EU.

More recently, a report presented by European business leaders in July 2008, entitled 'Languages mean business: companies work better with languages', found that EU businesses risk losing competitiveness as other countries start outperforming them in language skills.

The report, presented by the Business Forum for Multilingualism chaired by former EU Commissioner Viscount Etienne Davignon of Suez-Tractabel, found that emerging economies, primarily in Asia and Latin America, are quickly acquiring the solid language skills necessary to compete successfully. 

Europe will thus have to promote formal and informal language learning more effectively to keep up, it says, estimating that as much as 11% of European SMEs lose business every year as a direct result of linguistic and intercultural weaknesses.

On a more positive note, the EU's language industry is worth €8.4bn and is set to grow by 10% annually over the next few years after having recorded one of the highest growth rates of any industrial sector despite the economic crisis, according to a European Commission-backed study published in November 2009 (EURACTIV 30/11/09).     

3. Giving citizens access to European Union legislation, procedures and information in their own languages

The EU adopts legislation which is binding on its citizens. It is therefore a prerequisite of the Union's democratic legitimacy and transparency that citizens should be able to communicate with its institutions and read EU law in their own national language, and take part in the European project without encountering any language barriers.

EU legislation must be published in the official languages of the bloc. The EU institutions are required to address citizens in the official language of their choice.

As part of its 'Plan D' to stimulate debate among EU citizens, the Commission is looking to further improve the way its message is translated into local languages to provide citizens with clear and jargon-free messages. The Commission's DG Translation Director General Juhani Lönnroth confirmed to EURACTIV that the Commission defines the term 'localisation' contained in Commmunications Commissioner Margot Wallström's Plan D initiative as "tailoring the message so that it is understood clearly by the citizens of a given member state".

Language skills to boost EU 'prosperity'

The EU's new multilingualism strategy, published on 18 September 2008 and entitled 'Multilingualism: an asset for Europe and a shared commitment', emphasised the importance of language skills in addressing challenges as diverse as globalisation and increased mobility and immigration. It sought to mainstream EU language policy across a number of existing policy areas, including the education, media, research, social inclusion and competitiveness fields.

The strategy highlighted the importance of language skills in improving the EU's social cohesion and prosperity in the context of the Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs. 

Recognising the growing importance of emerging markets for EU companies, the communication stressed the need for workforces to possess knowledge of the language of the regions in which they operate. It also highlighted the role of language skills in improving the employability of Europeans.

Moreover, given that 2008 was designated European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, the strategy emphasised the role of languages in removing barriers to interaction between cultures.

Finally, the Commission communication encouraged EU citizens to learn two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue, suggesting that learning a 'personal adoptive' foreign language alongside one acquired for professional reasons as proposed by the Maalouf report could be one way of achieving this.

Parliamentary backing  

Approving the EU executive's strategy during a Strasbourg plenary session on 24 March 2009, the European Parliament agreed that more must be done to encourage Europeans to learn foreign languages (EURACTIV 25/03/09). But MEPs were sharply divided over how far the Union should go in backing minority language teaching. 

  • 1 Jan. 2007:  Multilingualism portfolio created. Early 2007:  Study on new technologies and linguistic diversity launched.
  • 2007: Member states reported on the actions they had taken towards the objectives of the 'Promoting Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity' Action Plan, adopted on 27 July 2003.
  • 31 Jan. 2008: Publication of the High Level Group on Multilingualism's (Maalouf) report on the role of multlingualism in promoting intercultural dialogue in Europe.
  • 15 Feb. 2008: EU-level ministerial conference on multilingualism entitled 'Promoting multilingualism: A shared commitment'.
  • 11 July 2008: Business Forum on Multilingualism presented its final report.
  • 18 Sept. 2008: Commission unveiled its communication outlining a new multilingualism strategy, entitled 'Multilingualism: an asset for Europe and a shared commitment'.
  • 26 Sept. 2008: Commission held its 'European Day of Languages 2008'. 
  • 20-21 Nov. 2008: Education, Youth and Culture Council adopted conclusions on new multilingualism strategy. 
  • 24 March 2009: European Parliament backed Commission Communication on Multilingualism during its Strasbourg plenary.
  • 22 Sept. 2009: Commission established Business Platform for the Promotion of Multilingualism. 
  • 23 Oct. 2009: Commission established Civil Society Platform for the Promotion of Multilingualism.
  • 27 Nov. 2009: Cypriot Androulla Vassiliou becomes EU commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth for José Manuel Barroso's second term as president of the EU executive.  
  • 2012: Commission to review success of new strategy.

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