Languages in Europe: We can’t afford to rely on a lingua franca
Our Language Rich Europe research shows, among other things, that
there’s a tendency that English is beoming the most widely chosen language at schools in Europe.
That’s not much of a surprise:
hasestablished itself as the lingua franca across Europe
- 51% of EU citizens speaking it as their first or second language
- German comes second with a total of 27% of EU citizens speaking it
- English is also the language predominantly used on the web and for business
2000 languages set to disappear
According to an estimate by META (Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance), 2000 languages worldwide will not survive in the globalised digitised world in a business and academic context. What does that mean for Europe? I have recently attended the Closing Conference of Language Rich Europe – so here are some thoughts:
There are 27 different official languages and a multitude of minority languages and dialects across Europe. This also means a multitude of cultures that we’ll only be able to understand if we make an effort to learn their languages. And understanding that, in my eyes, is key to living together peacefully, and vital to being mobile across Europe in terms of working and living. Especially the latter is becoming more and more important – immigrants need support to learn their new home’s language, and their children need to be able to learn their parent’s first language. It’s about identity and culture.
Can you protect your language of choice?
Now, obviously nobody can learn all these languages, but everybody should be able to learn their language of choice, for whichever reason. I’m hoping that technology will make learning languages easier and less resource-intensive, so all societies and their citizens can afford it. And minority languages need protection if we want to maintain diversity. Some governments have good policies in place for this; others still need to improve to adhere to the EU Commission’s recommendations for multilingualism. Recommendations need to be turned into policies that in turn need resources to be more than mere words.
Do you stay silent when visiting another country?
But it’s not only that, it’s also a question of attitude. As Mike Kelly, Conseil Européen pour les Langues / European Language Council, said:
“To speak a language imperfectly is better than saying nothing at all.”
What he meant is that we all pick up certain words from a foreign language if we visit a foreign country. So, rather than using English by default, we should try and speak that country’s language, even if it’s only a few words. It’s more than a means of communication – it shows interest and respect. And let’s not forget, there are also historical and political components related to language. A Dutch person doesn’t take too kindly to being addressed in German without any previous enquiry whether that’s okay. As Doris Pack MEP, Head of Culture Committee, phrased it:
“We need to make an effort to speak the language of our neighbours“.
Protecting the co-existence of languages in Europe
One of the Language Rich Europe project’s recommendations presented to the European Commission and the Council of Europe is to acknowledge the special position of English in Europe – in order to develop a new model for the co-existence of languages in Europe, to support multilingualism rather than undermine it. This obviously needs more research and a model to preserve other languages, meaning: the development of existing policies.
As Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, stated:
“The European Commission is committed to a multilingualism policy which recognises the importance of linguistic diversity and supports language learning, which is essential for economic competitiveness and inclusive societies.”
It’s important that we keep our fragile union stable to secure our identity, our mobility, our chance to earn our living and last, but not least, to have many interesting conversations with each other!
Language Rich Europe is a project run by the British Council in cooperation with 31 partners from 24 countries and regions. Research was conducted in 24 countries and regions in Europe to determine the impact of current language policies and practices.