Commission looks at language skills to boost EU ‘prosperity’


The European Commission will present a new EU languages strategy on 18 September, emphasising the importance of language skills in addressing challenges as diverse as globalisation and increased mobility and immigration.

The Commission communication, details of which have been seen by EURACTIV, will be launched by Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban on Thursday. 

Entitled ‘Multilingualism: an asset for Europe and a shared commitment,’ it will stress the importance of language skills in helping to improve the Union’s social cohesion and prosperity in the context of the Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs. Moreover, given that 2008 was designated European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, it will highlight the role of languages in removing barriers to interaction between cultures. 

Speaking at a public debate on multilingualism policy on 10 September, the EU commissioner responsible for the dossier, Leonard Orban, described the upcoming communication as a “comprehensive package” to promote the “social cohesion and prosperity” of the bloc.

But as yet it remains unclear whether any extra resources will be made available to implement the Commission’s proposals. Indeed, education remains a national competence, leading some to question the effectiveness of measures taken at EU level. Abram de Swaan, a professor of social science at the University of Amsterdam, told the public debate that much more than “high-faluting noble words” would be required to realise the commissioner’s goals.  

According to Orban, the strategy will encourage EU citizens to learn two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue, in accordance with the goal endorsed by leaders at their Barcelona meeting in 2002. It suggests that learning a second, ‘personal adoptive’ foreign language alongside one acquired for professional reasons as proposed by the Maalouf report could be one way of achieving this.

Languages for employability 

The role of language skills in increasing the Union’s prosperity stands at the forefront of Orban’s proposals. Recognising the increasing importance of emerging markets for EU companies, the communication stresses the need for workforces to have knowledge of the language of the regions in which they operate. 

The communication also highlights the role language skills can play in improving the employability of citizens. It calls on EU countries to do more to promote study and work exchanges abroad, as well as and e-partnership schemes. 

In France, Education Minister Xavier Darcos recently unveiled plans to offer free English lessons to students during school holidays, describing failure to speak the language fluently as a handicap in today’s world (EURACTIV 04/09/08). 

Language learning is a lifelong process, the communication stresses, calling on vocational and adult education to do more to promote it. It also says more effort should be made to offer a wider variety of languages, and calls for more teacher exchanges to take place to enhance their own fluency. 

The text will also highlight the potential to better exploit EU languages abroad and non-EU languages within the bloc itself. 

Asked during the public debate whether he envisaged adding new tongues to the official working languages of the EU, which are currently English, French and German, Orban said the next Commission would decide on this in November 2009. An overall review of EU multilingualism policy will take place in 2012.

Describing language diversity as "a source of wealth" for Europe, EU Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban told a public hearing on 10 September that "languages are the most effective tool to promote intercultural dialogue". Outlining the case for language learning, he warned that mutual incomprehension can act as "a barrier to exchange between cultures" and "lead to misunderstanding and conflict". 

Explaining the reasoning behind the 'personal adoptive language' concept, Sandra Pralong, a member of the High Level Group of Intellectuals on Multilingualism, outlined her vision of "a patchwork of bilateral relations stitching Europe together," whereby pockets of citizens in each country would learn different languages until all the bloc's tongues are covered, eliminating the need for a common third one such as English or French. 

According to British Socialist MEP Claude Moraes, who is actively involved in racial equality issues, promoting multilingual Europe is the key to maintaining the continent's cultural diversity while at the same time giving citizens a sense of respect and common belonging in a confident EU. 

But "languages are a huge issue, going beyond Brussels village talk of translation expenses" to encroach upon issues of integration and identity. Thus the multilingualism debate "will always remain emotional," he says, as languages are "impossible to disentangle from history and culture". 

Emeritus Research Professor for Social Sciences Abram de Swaan of the University of Amsterdam is critical of the EU's tendency to promote "noble aims" that are difficult to achieve in practice. Moreover, the bloc's language diversity makes it difficult to create a common European public space, he said. "The more languages we encourage, the more English will prevail," he claimed, due to what he termed "the interference of reality". 

Instead, two or three cross-border languages should to be employed in the EU rather than all 23, argues de Swaan. But all politicians should have the right to speak their own language and all the bloc's tongues should be spoken publicly by top EU officials to raise awareness of Europe's linguistic diversity, he argues.

Back in July, European business leaders released a report warning that EU industry is at risk of losing competitiveness as other countries start outperforming the bloc in terms of language skills (EURACTIV 14/07/08). 

Their report complements an earlier one from the High Level Group on Multilingualism chaired by Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, which urged EU citizens to learn a second, 'personal adoptive' foreign language alongside one acquired for professional reasons (EURACTIV 31/01/08). 

The findings of both reports are expected to feed into the Commission's communication on multilingualism, due out this week.

  • 18 Sept. 2008: Commission to present communication on multilingualism.  
  • 2012: Commission to carry out global review of multilingualism policy.

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