Teachers back ‘personal adoptive’ language proposal

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Representatives of the academic community gave their backing to the idea of a ‘personal adoptive’ language at a public hearing on multilingualism yesterday (15 April), with some suggesting EU funding be made available for the proposal.

The personal adoptive language (PAL) would be a “second mother tongue, learned intensively and spoken and written fluently” rather than a foreign language, said Jacques De Decker of the Belgian Royal Academy of French Language and Literature, a member of the group of intellectuals whose report first mooted the idea (EURACTIV 31/01/08). 

If enough people learn PALs then “bilateral relations between EU peoples” could take place in the language of both interlocutors, De Decker said. Ad-hoc interpreting by a third party may eliminate the need to communicate via a third language, he claimed. Meanwhile, PALs would become “an integral part of educational and occupational training,” he added. 

The personal adoptive language idea received a warm welcome from the academic world. EU-funded study grants could be introduced to allow people to study PALs abroad and generate interest in language-learning among individuals, suggested Stefania Giannini of the University for Foreigners of Perugia. 

But others were less optimistic about its chances of success. “The practical side of things” would have to be explored further if the proposal is to be made to work, stressed An Le Nouail Marlière of the European Economic and Social Committee. She questioned whether people would actually need the languages they have learned in practice and warned that if workers were going to take up the idea then trade unions would need to be made aware of it first. 

Meanwhile, a Slovenian government representative stressed the importance of incorporating the PAL idea into the Commission’s new language strategy, due to be published in September this year. 

Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban said "ideas are crystallising" around September's strategy, which he hoped would be "ambitious" and bring "added value" by "going beyond the philosophical" to "contain specific proposals". He announced his intention to "make the most" of the Maalouf report's findings, but stressed the need to be "pragmatic" as the principle of subsidiarity means the Commission can only "act as a catalyst" on education policy. 

An Le Nouail Marlière of the European Economic and Social Committee warned the PAL idea must not too "idyllic and poetic" if it is to actually happen. She also stressed that the range of languages taken up must be sufficiently diverse. "We don't want everything to be confined to a small number of languages," she said. 

Jacques De Decker, the permanent secretary of the Belgian Royal Academy of French Language and Literature who helped compile the Maalouf report, said the personal adoptive language idea was "now being accepted" and the report may "become a reference text". He hopes that "bilateral relations between EU peoples" will eventually take place in the two languages of those involved rather than a third language, something which he believes the PAL proposal may be capable of achieving. 

Romanian MEP Sógor Csaba expressed his concern that there will always be too much focus on the "big" languages to the detriment of others, pointing out that some EU countries still have not signed the minority languages charter. 

Jan Roukens of the Stichting Nederlands warned that "English is dominating all our languages" in the EU, a "dangerous" situation which he believes the Maalouf report fails to address. Despite the EU treaties "fantastic" statements on linguistic equality, the situation "is very different in practice," he said, citing the Europa website's strong bias towards English and French as an example. 

PALs are a "fascinating proposal" that could be developed "based on individual choice and the passion you get from personal motivation," said Stefania Giannini, rector of the University for Foreigners of Perugia. "The utopia of the working group could become a wonderful and fascinating reality," she added. 

Hatto Fischer of Poiein Kai Prattein, a Greek civil society organisation, complained that "we don't really know what policies the Commission is going to come up with". 

The Public Hearing on Multilingualism brought together stakeholders from the academic and cultural sectors and representatives of the EU institutions, including Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban. 

The debate centered on a 'personal adoptive language' proposal presented by an independent High Level Group on Multilingualism in January. The group was made up of a diverse range of figures, including writers and philosophers, and chaired by Lebanese author Amin Maalouf. 

Language policy is a sensitive subject at EU level because it is strongly linked to national identity and infringes upon education policy, which is primarily a national competence. Moreover, the EU institutions' translation and interpreting services alone absorb €1.1bn per year, or 1% of the EU budget. 

The Commission is set to publish its new strategy on multilingualism in September 2008, while the EU institutions are currently reviewing their translation and interpreting regimes as part of a wider debate over the scope and cost of multilingualism policy. 

  • Sept. 2008: Commission to publish new multilingualism strategy.

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