No extra EU cash for languages ‘until 2013’


No additional funding will be released to boost EU language policy until 2013 at the earliest, said the commissioner responsible for the dossier Leonard Orban yesterday (18 September 2008), unveiling the EU executive’s new multilingualism strategy.

Presenting the communication, entitled ‘Multilingualism: an asset for Europe and a shared commitment’, Commissioner Orban said “the implementation of the strategy does not require any additional budgetary resources”. For the moment, “the 2007-2013 budget under the Lifelong Learning programme contains all the required funds,” he explained. 

The Commission intends to review the success of the new strategy in 2012, when it “will decide whether any additional funds will be required in the next period,” the commissioner added. 

Results “should not be expected overnight” but “I am convinced that we will be successful,” Orban said. Rather than making new funding available, the Commission is backing an “inclusive approach” which seeks to “mainstream” languages across the full spectrum of EU policy, as revealed by EURACTIV earlier this week (EURACTIV 15/09/08). 

Indeed, the communication says the EU should “make the most of existing European programmes and initiatives” in the fields of education, media, research, social inclusion and competitiveness. To this end, Commissioner Orban said he would set up “a permanent platform” for exchange of best practice on language policy between governments, business, trade unions and academics. 

The main objective of the communication is to “raise awareness of the value and opportunities of the EU’s linguistic diversity and encourage the removal of barriers to intercultural dialogue”. 

Making the case for citizens to learn at least two foreign languages, including a ‘personal adoptive’ tongue to complement one acquired for professional reasons, the text warns that the plethora of languages spoken throughout the bloc “can widen the communication gap between people of different cultures and increase social divisions, giving the multilingual access to better living and working opportunities while excluding the monolingual”. 

But Emeritus Research Professor for Social Sciences Abram de Swaan of the University of Amsterdam disagrees. “The more languages we encourage, the more English will prevail,” De Swaan believes. He goes as far as saying that “the EU is the biggest propagator of English in Europe,” citing the fact that many sections of the EU institutions’ websites can only be viewed in English and the reality of communication among participants in the Erasmus student mobility scheme as proof of this. 

Meanwhile, the communication stresses the following key points: 

  • Language skills improve employability and boost business competitiveness
  • Languages promote mutual understanding in a multicultural society. 
  • European citizens should speak two languages in addition to their mother tongue. 
  • The media and new technologies can bridge the gap between speakers of different languages. 

But the text makes clear that the promotion of these goals must be achieved “within existing resources”. What’s more, language policy is largely a national competence, a situation which this communication will not change. 

“Member states are the key decision-makers on language policy,” while “many other organisations take decisions on the ground on language issues: educational providers, regional and local authorities, social partners, media and services,” it states. “With this communication, we are prompting the EU member states, local authorities and social partners to join forces and take action,” Orban explained. 

Meanwhile, the EU institutions’ translation and interpreting services, which absorb €1.1bn or 1% of the EU budget every year, were not addressed by the communication. “The strategy did not aim to solve the institutional side of multilingualism,” said the commissioner. 

"Our inclusive approach takes into consideration the value and opportunities of linguistic diversity in Europe and the more individual needs of learning languages to communicate efficiently," said Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban. "The harmonious co-existence of many languages in Europe is a powerful symbol of the EU's aspiration to be united in diversity," he added. 

Warning that multilingualism cannot be taken for granted, Shada Islam of the European Policy Centre said "more effort and investment is required to protect it". "Languages enrich the EU's cultural heritage and identity and are good for its business and competitiveness," she added.  

According to Emeritus Research Professor for Social Sciences Abram de Swaan of the University of Amsterdam, the EU's language diversity is a "pain in the neck" and "an obstacle" to the creation of a shared European public space. Describing the spread of English as "irreversible", he said realities such as the fact that most scientific papers must be written in English to get published was eroding the use of national languages in countries like Denmark. 

Speaking at a public hearing on multilingualism last week, a University of Leuven professor criticised the 'personal adoptive' language idea, saying encouraging EU citizens to learn the language of their neighbour would never work in Belgium. 

At the same event, a Commission official who sends his children to a Brussels-based European School said "diversity of language skills for young children is great," but questioned where the line should be drawn. "Which language is your mother tongue?," he asked. "Which one is in your heart?" 

"Speaking four or so languages fluently from a young age is not quite the same as having a mother tongue," he said, claiming that it was even leading to a decline in the English skills among pupils at the school.

Sandra Pralong, a member of the 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 EU tongues are covered, eliminating the need for a common third one such as English or French. This is the motivation behind the 'personal adoptive language' concept promoted in the group's report and cited in the communication, she explained.

Speaking on International Francophony Day (20 March), French President Nicolas Sarkozy stressed the need to make more frequent use of the French language in international institutions, including the EU. 

Calling for a "more offensive Francophony," Sarkozy said he would "supervise the statute of French in the European Union" and push ahead with efforts to "maintain equilibrium between the Union's working languages". "The promotion of Francophony is in our interests," he said, urging diplomats from France and other French-speaking countries to "be vigilant about using French in the international arena". 

Community multilingualism as laid down in the regulations of the EU institutions is "declining", warned Abdou Dioufsecretary general of the 68-member International Francophony Association (OIF), in an interview with EURACTIV. 

"I am fighting to defend the principle of multilingualism and the representation of the different languages of the European Union," Diouf said, adding: "Language is inseparable from democracy. The Union will not move forward without its people. The peoples of the Union will not move forward without their cultures, that is, without their identities."

German MP Klaus-Peter Willsch (CDU) wants to strengthen the use of German in the EU and - together with the Association for German Language - is calling for all official internet pages of the EU institutions, as well as all relevant documents, to be translated into German. 

"The German language must at least be put on an equal footing with English and French," Willsch said, adding that "discrimination" against German in the EU "cannot continue". He is particularly critical of the European Parliament, whose website he claims often makes information available in just English or French or even exclusively English. "German citizens must have the opportunity to inform themselves of the activities of this vital political decision-making institution in their mother tongue," he said. 

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 fed into yesterday's communication

  • 2012: Commission to carry out global review of multilingualism policy. 
  • 2013: End of the current funding period for the EU's Lifelong Learning programme. 

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