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FAQs on multilingualism and language learning

European Commission - MEMO/12/703   25/09/2012

Other available languages: FR DE DA ES NL IT SV PT FI EL CS ET HU LT LV MT PL SK SL BG RO

European Commission

MEMO

Brussels, 25 September 2012

FAQs on multilingualism and language learning

IP/12/1005

What does ‘multilingualism’ mean?

  • The ability to speak and master several languages;

  • A policy requiring an organisation, a company or an institution to use more than one language for its internal and/or external communication.

What are the official languages of the EU?

The 23 official languages of the EU institutions are: Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Swedish.

Who decides the EU's official languages?

The Council of the European Union, where all EU Member States are represented, decides on this unanimously. Before joining the EU, each future Member State stipulates which language it wants to use as its official language(s) for EU purposes. Any subsequent change — adding a new official language or removing an existing one — must be approved unanimously by all Member States.

How many regional languages are spoken in Member States?

There are round 60 minority and regional languages spoken in the European Union, as well as more than 175 migrant languages.

What status do regional languages have in the EU institutions?

The Council of the EU has agreed that certain languages that are recognised by the Constitution of a Member State, even if they are not the country's official EU language(s), can be used in formal EU meetings and EU documents. An agreement on the use of Basque, Catalan and Galician in documents has been concluded between the EU institutions and the Spanish government. The United Kingdom government has a similar agreement concerning the use of Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. In these cases, translations are provided by the government of the Member State concerned, as and when needed, at its own expense. Interpretation from (but not into) Basque, Catalan/Valencian/Balearic and Galician is provided upon request for certain Council formations with regional representatives, as well as in the plenary meetings of the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee. The cost of this interpretation is met by the Member State in question. The Welsh and Scottish authorities have a similar arrangement.

Does EU law protect the use of languages?

EU rights and obligations regarding languages are safeguarded by European law. The EU Treaty (Article 3) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Articles 21 & 22) prohibit discrimination on grounds of language and state that the Union shall respect linguistic diversity.

The first Community Regulation, passed in 1958, requires the Community institutions to translate legislation into all official EU languages, and to reply to inquiries from citizens in the same language as the inquiry (Article 2, also Articles 20 & 24 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).

Does the EU plan to reduce the number of official languages?

No. The current system is in place in the interest of democracy, transparency and accountability. No Member State is willing to relinquish its own language and candidate countries want to have theirs added to the list of official languages. Adoption of a single language for the EU has sometimes been proposed. This would be undemocratic, though, as it would prevent most people in the EU from understanding what is being done in their name and reduce accountability.

Why does the European Commission promote multilingualism?

Because it wants to 1) promote intercultural dialogue and a more inclusive society; 2) help the citizens of the 27 Member States develop a sense of EU citizenship; 3) open up opportunities for people to study and work abroad and 4) open up new markets for EU businesses competing at the global level.

In short, what is the aim of the EU's language policies?

EU language policies aim to protect linguistic diversity and to promote knowledge of languages for reasons of cultural identity, social integration and because multilingual citizens are better placed to take advantage of education and job opportunities in the Single Market.

The goal is a Europe where everyone is taught at least two languages in addition to their own mother tongue from a very early age. The 'mother-tongue +2' objective was set by EU heads of state and government at the Barcelona Summit in March 2002.

What role do translation and interpretation play?

The role of the European Union’s translation and interpreting services is to support and strengthen multilingualism in the European Union and to help bring the Union’s policies closer to its citizens. Informing citizens, particularly about their rights and obligations under EU law, and communicating with them in all the official languages is essential for the legitimacy, transparency, accountability and efficiency of the EU.

Is every EU document translated into all official languages?

No. Documents are translated in line with priorities: these depend on the target audience and the purpose. Legislation and documents of major public importance or interest are translated in all 23 official languages. Other documents (for example, correspondence with national authorities and decisions addressed to particular individuals or entities) are translated only into the languages needed.

The European Commission conducts its internal business in three ‘procedural’ languages — English, French and German. The Members of the European Parliament receive working documents in their own language.

What about websites?

Using the Internet to keep the public informed about what the EU is doing and how it benefits them is increasingly important. Regarding the Commission's websites, there is no legal obligation to translate every page into all official languages. However, the Commission provides as much information as possible, in as many languages as possible, on its websites.

What is the cost of translation and interpretation in the EU institutions?

The total cost of translation and interpretation in all the EU institutions (including the European Commission, European Parliament, Council, Court of Justice of the European Union, European Court of Auditors, European Economic and Social Committee, Committee of Regions) is around €1 billion per year. This represents less than 1% of the EU budget or just over €2 per citizen. The European Commission employs around 3 000 staff translators and interpreters.

Which language is the most important one?

All languages are considered as equally important. The EU language with the largest number of native speakers within the EU is German. But it is not widely used outside Germany and Austria. The EU languages used most in the world are English and Spanish — but most of the speakers are not in Europe. English is the most widely known second language in the EU. However, recent surveys show that, even now, less than half of the EU population knows it well about to be able to communicate. French is the official language, or one of the official languages, of three Member States (Belgium, France and Luxembourg). It is spoken in many parts of the world and taught in many schools in the EU — but it is much more widely known in southern and western Europe than in the north or east of the continent.

Would one language for all be a solution?

The idea that a single language could be the solution to all linguistic needs is too simplistic. Latin or Esperanto are sometimes suggested as a single, pan-European language that the EU should adopt. However, since almost everybody would have to learn either of these from scratch, this solution would be equally hard and not terribly useful in relations with the rest of the world. Training teachers and teaching 500 million Europeans a new language would take a lot of time and resources. This is why the European Commission’s commitment to multilingualism promotes diversity rather than uniformity.

If I learn languages, what is in it for me?

In times of rising unemployment and challenging economic perspectives, the ability to use and understand foreign languages is an added value and key competence for employability, growth and jobs. This is why the EU's Heads of State and of Government called in 2002 for teaching at least two foreign languages from a very early age.

What support does the EU provide to enable people to learn languages abroad?

Learning languages abroad can play a role in the recovery of our economies as well as in the development of a more coherent society on a continental scale. All citizens of the EU should be able to develop better linguistic skills, open up to different cultures and discover the opportunities that the Union and the global marketplace offer them. The EU's Lifelong Learning Programme allocates around € 50 million per year on raising awareness of the importance of linguistic skills, boosting access to language learning resources and developing language learning and teaching materials. Language learning and linguistic diversity are among the priorities of the 'Erasmus for All' programme for 2014-20. It is expected that the new programme, currently under discussion in the Council and the European Parliament, will significantly increase funding for the acquisition and development of language skills.

Are languages important for business?

Yes, because it is useful to know the language of your customer. In 2006, a study was carried out for the European Commission to estimate the cost to EU businesses of not having foreign language skills. The study showed that SMEs investing in the language skills of their staff or following a language strategy achieved export sales 44.5% higher than those not making any of these investments.

What do Europeans think of languages?

According to a Eurobarometer survey on EU citizens' attitudes towards multilingualism and foreign language learning published in June 2012, almost nine out of ten EU citizens believe that the ability to speak foreign languages is very useful, and 98% say that mastering languages is good for their children's future. Europeans are strongly aware of the benefits of multilingualism: 72% agree with this objective and 77% believe it should be a priority; 53% use languages at work and 45% think they got a better job in their own country thanks to their foreign language skills.

How good are Europeans at using languages?

According to the 2012 Eurobarometer survey, the number of Europeans saying they can communicate in a foreign language has fallen slightly, from 56% to 54%, since the last survey on multilingualism in 2005. A separate European Commission study, the first European Survey on Language Competences, carried out language tests among teenage pupils in 14 European countries; it found that only 42% are competent in their first foreign language and just 25% in their second. A significant number, 14% in the case of the first foreign language and 20% in the second, fail to achieve even the level of 'basic user'. The proportion of pupils who are competent in their first foreign language ranges from 82% in Malta and Sweden (where English is the first foreign language) to only 14% in France (learning English) and 9% in the UK (learning French). The internet has encouraged people to broaden their 'passive' reading and listening skills in foreign languages. The number of Europeans who regularly use foreign languages on the internet, e.g. through the social media, has increased by 10 percentage points, from 26% to 36%. The most multilingual EU country is Luxembourg where 99% of citizens master at least one foreign language.

Who is the most multilingual person in the European Commission?

Ioannis Ikonomou, who is a translator for the European Commission, speaks 32 languages. Ioannis was born in Irakleio, Crete. He studied linguistics at the University of Thessaloniki before pursuing an MA in Middle Eastern languages and cultures at Columbia University in the United States. Ioannis has worked for the Commission since 2002. He will be one of the speakers at this week's 'Multilingualism in Europe' conference in Cyprus.


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