Intellectuals advise Commission on multilingualism benefits


Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban chaired the first meeting of a group of intellectuals and experts to make recommendations on how languages can foster “intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding”, ahead of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue 2008.

Following the meeting on 29 June 2007, the group’s first task will be to advise on a contribution to the forthcoming European Year of Intercultural Dialogue 2008 (EYID)

Eleven independent experts with a multicultural, literary or academic background in a multilingual and multicultural context have been chosen for the group: Chairman Amin Maalouf,(writer, Lebanon), Jens Christian Grondahl (writer, Denmark), Tullio de Mauro (linguist, Italy), Jutta Limbach (president of the Goethe Institute, Germany) Jan Sokol (philosopher, Czech Republic), David Green (former director of the British Council, UK), Jacques de Decker (writer, journalist, secrétaire perpétuel de l’Académie royale de langue et de littérature françaises de Belgique, Belgium), Sandra Pralong (communication expert, Romania), Jorge Semprun (writer, Spain), Tahar Ben Jelloun (writer and poet, Morrocco) and Eduardo Lourenço (writer, philosopher, Portugal).

Commissioner Orban said: “As an integral part of our identity, language is the structuring element of any culture and its most direct expression. To respect and promote linguistic and cultural diversity is one of the European Union’s strategic priorities and a basic key to European integration. The promotion of intercultural dialogue is inseparable from multilingualism.”

The successive enlargements of the European Union and increased mobility of citizens, along with the globalisation process have contributed to new immigration flows and increased the degree of interchange between languages, cultures and beliefs in Europe. To face the challenges raised by an increasingly multicultural European society, there is a pressing need to develop the intercultural skills of European citizens and promote dialogue between cultures. Language is the most direct expression of each culture, the Commission believes. The group’s mandate will be to:

  • Discuss how knowledge of other languages can provide access to other cultures and help create an inclusive society in Europe;
  • identify ways of fostering intercultural dialogue in Europe, taking into account the ethical dimensions of a multicultural society, and;
  • propose strategies for communicating the enrichment potential of language learning and the meeting of languages and cultures with a view to the forthcoming EYID 2008.

The group is to meet three times during 2007, and its conclusions will be presented next year.

Meanwhile, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), on the initiative of MEPs Marco Cappato (Partito Radicale, Italy), Marco Pannella (Partito Radicale, Italy) and Henrik Lax (Svenska Folkpartiet, Finland), held a public hearing on 2 and 3 July 2007 to analyse and address linguistic discrimination, and to combat “the ineffectiveness of the linguistic policies adopted up to now in Europe”. 

Cappato said: “Every day, whether in their place of work or in dealings with their local administration, millions of European citizens are discriminated against by not being able to conduct their basic business or work in their own mother tongue. This is a real paradox, as this right is enshrined in the Treaties and particularly as the European Union is active with initiatives to preserve linguistic diversity in Europe. This problem has a global dimension as, according to UNESCO, between 50% and 90% of the languages spoken in the world are destined to disappear during this century, if effective measures are not adopted.”

The two-day hearing, involving linguists, trade unionists, journalists and NGOs active in the area of minority languages, examined ways of allowing multilingualism to become a reality not only in the European institutions but also “closer to the linguistic minorities who are forced to live and work in a language other than their own”.

The European Union’s 23 official languages mean that there are up to 506 theoretical language combinations for interpretation and translation. Various mechanisms exist to facilitate the practical implementation of multilingualism at an EU level, while keeping overall costs within 1% of the total EU budget. But there is currently no legal basis in the Treaties to formulate a coherent language policy. 

Cappato specifically called for emerging new technologies to play a role in defending and developing linguistic diversity: “New technologies have the power to either destroy or enrich our linguistic heritage,” he said. “It is a matter of political choice and political will. Open-source software and programmes such as Wikipedia are examples of ways to ensure the widest possible contributions, independent of language background.”

“Clearly there is a need to ensure efficiency and ease of communication at work, including in multinational and multilingual environments like the European Parliament, but we must make a commensurate effort to keep alive the spirit of multilingualism and the rich variety of our linguistic heritage.”

Subscribe to our newsletters