Interview: ‘Taking languages too seriously kills them’

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Defending the multiplicity of languages in the EU is the best way of protecting them as taking a single language too seriously will only succeed in killing it, argues Catherine Suard of the French Institute in Sofia in an interview with EURACTIV Bulgaria.

Describing how French views on EU language policy have evolved in the last few decades, Suard, who is the director of the cultural centre at the French Institute in Sofia, said France was now reflecting “much more openly” on the issue. “In defending one language, we are defending every language,” she maintains. 

EU language policy is under particular scrutiny this year as the European Commission is set to propose a new multilingualism strategy in September 2008 (EURACTIV 19/02/08). Moreover, multilingualism is seen as a means of promoting inter-religious dialogue and cultural understanding among EU citizens in the context of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue (EYID) 2008.

“Language has become closely linked to national identity” in Europe, remarked Suard, primarily as a result of recent EU enlargements, notably to include central and eastern European countries. Thus the French Institute has identified Europe as “issue number one” and aims to ensure that officials in the member states and EU institutions continue to use French, she said. 

But Suard concedes that “we have the right to play with languages,” stressing that enriching the vocabulary of a language is “the idea of multilingualism” and contributes to the diversity which is “the goal of a united Europe”. 

What’s more, far from being concerned that the tendency to use universal words and mix English, French and German phrases in EU circles is a threat, Suard argues that “ideas and emotions can sometimes be “better expressed” using foreign phrases. She goes on to warn that taking languages too seriously “kills them”. 

Encouraging European citizens to learn two ‘adoptive’ languages is set to form the basis of the EU executive’s September proposals, building on the conclusions of an independent report by a high-level group of intellectuals presented by Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban in January (EURACTIV 31/01/08). 

But it is important to realise that “learning an adoptive language is not the same as learning a foreign language,” stresses Suard. Instead, an adoptive language allows the user to “better understand the culture of others”. 

Users identify with the culture of their adoptive language and use it to have fun and gather information, she adds.

To read the interview in full, please click here (in French only)

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