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European Commission


Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth

Why languages still matter

Conference on Multilingualism in Europe

Nicosia, 27 September 2012


Vice-President of the European Parliament,

Dear colleagues,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to Cyprus! I feel very honoured to see you all in my home country, and wish you a happy and memorable stay on our island. Welcome also to this wonderful building in the heart of Limassol. I can think of no better invitation to fruitful industry than to be gathered here today in the town's old Carob Mill.

Our host, the Lanitis Foundation, continues a proud family tradition of supporting education and the arts in the local community. The late Evagoras Lanitis, a renowned personality in Cypriot public life, was convinced that companies, as well as being profitable, should also contribute to society as a whole. His wife and sons maintain this ethos today. I hope you will agree that the Lanitis Centre is a most fitting place for our conference.

And allow me to thank my services, in particular our Multilingualism Unit, for organising such an engaging programme, which promises lively debate, fresh thinking and, I hope, new friendships. I know how hard you all worked for this conference, and I salute your efforts.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is an important moment for languages in Europe. As we continue our celebration of the European Day of Languages, we have one eye on the past and one on the future.

Ten years ago, in Barcelona, European Union leaders set out an ambitious vision of language-learning and its contribution to every child's education. The aim was clear: to improve the mastery of basic skills, in particular by teaching at least two foreign languages from a very early age.

Today, it is only natural that we should try to take stock. How useful was the Barcelona target? How much progress have we made so far? Where do we go next? These are some of the questions we will be discussing today and tomorrow.

But before we talk about what needs to be done, I think we should pause to reflect on where we all stand today. To be more precise, I believe this is an opportune moment to consider the place of languages within the European Union. To put it bluntly, do languages still matter, and why?

I would offer a simple response: the day when Europe ceases to speak its many languages is the day that Europe – as an idea, as a project – ceases to exist.

In spite of a profound economic crisis, which has rocked the European Union to its very foundations, our fundamental objective remains the same: to work together for a better society while fully respecting our differences. We continue to believe that freedom, equality, solidarity and diversity can be reconciled in a common endeavour.

Language is essential to this mission. If we no longer take the trouble to learn our neighbours' language, then we are less likely to understand their concerns, and even less likely to lend a helping hand. Experience tells us that we are more willing to make sacrifices for those that we know and trust. Today as much as ever, culture and language remain potent factors of our sense of community.

I believe the role of language goes even deeper than this: it is about our relationship with our fellow human beings and how we empathise with them. Today, science helps us to understand the workings of the human mind, and one phenomenon is especially interesting for any discussion of language-learning: the act of imitation.

I think many of us would recognise how imitation helps us to learn a new language. Is it not both pleasurable and curious to see how we try, quite instinctively, to imitate the sound of the other's voice – the accent, the intonation, the style. Imitation is one of the most vital human skills, and the new sciences of the brain are helping us to understand just how important it is.

The scientist and former teacher of English, Iain McGilchrist, has developed this idea. McGilchrist says:

"Human imitation is not slavish. It is not a mechanical process – dead, perfect, finished – but one that introduces variety and uniqueness. The enormous strength of the human capacity for imitation is that our brains let us escape from the confines of our own experience and enter directly into the experience of another being.

This is the way in which we bridge the gap, share in what another person feels and does, and what it is like to be that person."

I believe that these ideas have major implications for the debate on language-learning and its place in European society. Science is beginning to tell us new things about our mind and how it manages important social functions such as language and our relations with other people.

To put it very simply, if we begin to lose interest in learning other people's languages – and if we no longer try to imitate our neighbours in this very natural and healthy way – then we no longer enter into their world, and do not empathise with their thoughts and feelings. This, I believe, is the most profound and urgent reason why Europe, perhaps more than ever before, must encourage its people to learn new languages. It continues our historic mission to bring peace to our peoples.

Having briefly looked into the workings of the human mind, let us now return to the global stage and the workings of international relations. When we debate the importance of learning new languages, we are speaking about the European Union's place in the world. And it is here that I find much of my optimism.

I believe that if this twenty-first century is to be marked by further economic and technological integration, the continued expansion of our communication networks, and greater mobility among our peoples, then the European Union may be better equipped to prosper in this new world than many people believe.

Europe has a long history of managing its own diversity, including its cultural and linguistic variety. Of course, this has not been one long success story. Far from it. The European Union was, at its birth, the response to a catastrophic failure to resolve conflict. Still today we cannot ignore the spread of populist and sometimes xenophobic sentiment in our national politics.

But I believe we can and will overcome these tensions precisely because our diversity has become such a central part of who we are. It's part of our DNA. So much of our political debate, both national and European, grapples with the question of how we reconcile liberty, equality and solidarity in a multicultural society. This is a permanent conversation across Europe, which has already existed for many years and will continue for many more, and it defines who we are.

The European Union today is home to 23 official languages – Croatia will take it to 24 next year – and around 60 minority and regional languages, not to mention well over 100 migrant languages. Some will always be spoken more widely than others, but we value all of them equally. Each and every language embodies a unique cultural identity, and none should be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.

At this point, I would like to pay tribute to the translation and interpreting services of the European Commission and Parliament, whose Director Generals are here with us today. No other organisation in the world functions in as many languages as we do, and we should be proud of the excellent service that we provide to our citizens day in day out, often under the most trying circumstances.

Our commitment to cultural and linguistic diversity belongs to the unique political model that the European Union has offered to the world over the last half-century. Europe's openness both among its own nations and towards the rest of the world, I believe, constitutes the core of our 'soft power' for the years to come.

Of course, I am not naïve. I recognise that today's economic crisis has raised serious questions about the future of European integration. I accept that our sense of solidarity is being stretched to its limits, and that many people question the benefits of a globalising economy. But in spite of these worries, I am convinced that Europe's unique historic response to the question of diversity prepares us well for the knowledge-based society that has arrived.

At this point, I would challenge the idea, as others have done recently, that the rise of English as the global lingua franca is inevitable and without limits. Certainly, for many years to come, the dominance of English in global affairs seems set to continue. But history tells us something about the uncertainty that accompanies such trends.

In the words of the eminent linguist, Nicholas Ostler:

"None of us live long enough to see the course of development of a global language, although we may witness some of the salient events in one, such as the revival of Hebrew in Israel, the abolition of Russian from schools in the Baltic, or the growth of competence in English in Japanese students.

This inevitably gives the impression that these relatively sudden changes are where the action lies. By contrast, we are led to believe that a development that has taken centuries, such as the rise of English, is ultimate and unstoppable. These impressions are deceptive."

Next to the question of Europe's place in the world comes that of our economic future. Beyond today's urgent task of solving the eurozone crisis, we must also address the deeper imbalances between our economies, and think carefully about the sort of economy we want to build. And this brings us to the question of education.

The European Commission estimates that, by 2020, around 15 million new jobs in Europe will require high-level skills. In 2020, about one third of all jobs will demand such skills. This is how the knowledge-based society translates into real needs and political choices.

The question facing the European Union is simple and stark: will we invest sufficiently in the modernisation of our education systems so that we can empower all our young people, irrespective of their social background and financial means, to develop their full potential as human beings?

Education now occupies a central place in the European Union's economic policy-making. Many of you will be familiar with 'Europe 2020', our road-map out of the crisis and onto the path of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Among its five headline targets, 'Europe 2020' calls on Member States to expand tertiary education to 40 per cent of young people, and reduce the number of early school leavers to below 10 per cent.

Now, every year, the European Commission recommends policies to all of the Member States, advising them how to address the most urgent challenges to their economy, including through education and training.

Let me be clear. This new promotion of education within European policy-making is momentous. For it is precisely as a central pillar of education for the knowledge-based society that we want to position the learning of new languages.

This explains why the European Union's future programme for education and training, 'Erasmus for All', includes language-learning and linguistic diversity as one of its six objectives. And I am happy to announce that in their negotiations on 'Erasmus for All', both the European Parliament and the Member States fully support this new, enhanced status for languages.

Ladies and gentlemen,

You will have the opportunity over the next two days to discuss 'Erasmus for All' in more detail, and I will only say a few words about the programme now.

Above all, we plan to finance three types of activity, and each of these will promote language-learning and linguistic diversity.

First, mobility. Since its creation 25 years ago, the 'Erasmus' programme has allowed more than two million young Europeans to study abroad. With a new budget that Member States are negotiating this autumn, we hope to expand this opportunity so that a much wider group of people can study, train or work abroad.

'Erasmus for All' therefore creates an historic opportunity to boost language-learning across the European Union. By 2020, as many as 900,000 people every year could be enjoying an EU-funded exchange, as pupils, teachers, students, trainees, youth workers or volunteers. Our ambition is to integrate language-learning into every mobility experience for all sectors of education. If we can achieve this, then we would dramatically increase the number of people of all ages who are exposed to new languages.

The second pillar of 'Erasmus for All' will support cooperation and partnerships between organisations. Our goal is innovation. Transnational projects encourage openness and excellence, and facilitate the exchange of good practice between institutions.

We will continue to support pan-European networks for language-learning and linguistic diversity. It is here that we must explore how languages interact with numerous other policy objectives in education. From early childhood education and care to ICT, language-learning should play a central role.

The third pillar of 'Erasmus for All' will support policy reform. One of the great strengths of European policy-making is our ability to learn from one another. The EU cannot interfere in national education and language policies – the Treaty forbids it – but we can help to identify policies that work. We can guide Member States and propose new ideas to them.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have concluded with a more practical vision of languages within the European Union. Our new approach to education and training, embodied in 'Erasmus for All', responds to the urgent needs of European society and the desperate situation of Europe's youth.

But let me be clear about one thing. Our attention to the economic role of languages in no way undermines our commitment to linguistic diversity as an objective in its own right. On the contrary.

Today, the European Union's duty to protect and promote diversity is enshrined more securely than ever before. Our Charter of Fundamental Rights forbids any discrimination based on language, and declares that the Union must respect linguistic diversity.

It is our responsibility to ensure that our pride in these values is matched by an equal commitment to their realisation in daily life. I can assure you that the European Commission stands ready to do precisely that, and, in 'Erasmus for All', we will have a powerful tool.

Ten years after Barcelona, this is a moment to measure progress and draw lessons, and at the same time look to the future and imagine new opportunities. I believe we can do so with a sense of purpose and optimism.

This year saw the first-ever European Survey of Language Competences as well as a major poll of public opinion – the Eurobarometer. These two surveys have created a vast and comprehensive body of research, which will help us to design a new European benchmark on language-learning. The Commission plans to launch the benchmark in the near future.

The Eurobarometer and the Survey of Language Competences tell a fascinating story, and you will have the chance to explore them in more detail tomorrow.

The most important message that I took away from the research is that we all have a lot of work to do if Europe is to become more multilingual, but the general public recognises the importance of the task.

At the start of my presentation, I asked the question of whether language`s still matter. In the eyes of our citizens, languages have never been as important as they are today. The European Commission could not agree more.

Thank you.

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