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Member of the European Commission for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth
Why languages matter:
European and national perspectives on multilingualism
European Day of Languages
Florence, 25 September 2014
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted to be here with you today to mark the European Day of Languages. I would like to thank the Italian Presidency for organising this event, and the City of Florence for hosting it in this magnificent setting.
Over the next two days you will be discussing the promotion and preservation of Europe's rich linguistic diversity in its many aspects and from different perspectives, under the aptly chosen title of "Why languages matter".
So if I may, I would like to start my intervention by addressing precisely that question. From an EU perspective, there is no doubt in my mind that languages do matter – and for many different reasons.
The first is of course that languages are an essential part of our shared identity as Europeans. Nothing encapsulates the EU motto "United in diversity" better than the EU's 24 official languages, its numerous dialects and minority languages. Just like their speakers, all languages are different and unique and do not describe the world in quite the same way. In another sense, all languages are the same, in that everything that can be said in one language can also be said in every other. This ability to overcome difference through communication and mutual understanding is the great gift of languages. It is also what the European project is all about.
On a more practical level, languages are valuable tools to get the most from life’s experiences, whether for work, study or just travelling. In an increasingly interconnected and competitive world, the knowledge of languages is an essential skill for all of us: for students wishing to study abroad and businesses looking to expand on new markets; for workers in search of better job opportunities; for scientists and academics collaborating across borders; in other words, for all those who wish to make the most of the wealth of opportunities that Europe has to offer, be they educational, professional or cultural.
I hope you won't mind if I take a moment to look back on the past five years and single out those which, in my view, are the most important achievements.
I'd like to start with the first European Survey on Language Competences, which we carried out in 2011 in close cooperation with the Member States. The results showed that the level of language skills as taught in schools throughout Europe is insufficient. The survey provided the basis for future Europe-wide assessments of proficiency in two foreign languages among 15 year-olds.
In May this year, all Member States reached political agreement about the need to better assess language skills in education in order to be able to improve the outcomes of language learning and progress towards the target levels. They will work on making language teaching in schools more efficient by introducing new teaching methods like content language integrated learning and by taking advantage of modern technologies.
This is also what our initiatives on “Rethinking Education” and “Opening up Education” – other highlights of my time in office - clearly underlined. Education in general and language teaching in particular must adapt to new technologies and exploit their full potential. This requires new teaching methods and new skills.
The European Commission is ready to help the Member States in their efforts to reform their systems for language teaching and learning. This will include modernizing school curricula and providing teaching staff with the right skills. I am happy that we have strengthened our cooperation with the Council of Europe and its Centre for Modern Languages, through a common framework for shared initiatives in this field.
Languages are also one of the overarching priorities of Erasmus+, our new funding programme for education, training, youth and sports. Language skills are at the core of mobility activities, which represent the largest part of the Erasmus+ programme. A brand new feature of the programme is the online linguistic support in the main languages used by people studying or working abroad. During this conference you will find out more about this initiative.
Languages in higher education will also be supported through the new Knowledge Alliances, which are large-scale partnerships between higher education institutions and businesses. The aim is to foster cooperation and bridge the gap between the worlds of education and work in order to tackle the skills mismatches currently affecting European labour markets. We expect multinational enterprises will want to step up learning in languages in order to better serve the European single market.
It will also be possible to fund projects involving language teaching and learning through the other strands of Erasmus+, through strategic partnerships involving stakeholders in several countries or by using the funds that are earmarked to support reforms.
I clearly see cooperation between the different stakeholders as the way forward; by working together on employability and innovation in the context of wider European education and training policies we can contribute to an inclusive Europe, a Europe which is not held back by language barriers.
And speaking of language barriers let me take this occasion to pay tribute to the world’s largest and most highly qualified interpretation and translation services in the EU institutions. Interpreters deliver an invaluable contribution to the European project. You will be able to enjoy and appreciate their professional skills throughout this conference, through your ear phones and by browsing our publications. These highly specialised professionals also contribute to strengthening the EU democratic process, for they enable citizens to participate and be informed in their own language.
This is an aspect that must not be underestimated. As we cannot possibly expect every European citizen to speak every single European language, we will always need highly skilled translators and interpreters. But the growing number of EU official languages is making the task increasingly complicated. To compound the problem, both professions still lack high-status university curricula and diplomas. We have therefore taken steps to remedy the situation.
Every year awareness-raising campaigns are organised in universities under the name "Next generation". They have resulted in more students taking up interpretation studies and will allow us to continue delivering high-quality interpretation in all those meetings and events that contribute to the democratic decision-making process of the European Union.
The Commission has also launched the "European Master's in Translation" project - a response to the increasing demand for multilingual language services at all levels. Thanks to our successful cooperation with European higher education institutions we now have a network of excellence of European translation programmes, which brings better recognition for translation professions and enhances the quality of global multilingual communication.
Building on this initiative we have created the “Translating Europe Forum” which we had the pleasure to organise for the first time in Brussels last week on 18-19 September. This event brought together universities, providers and buyers of translation services, public institutions, private companies and translation professionals with the aim to create a structured cooperation with all these stakeholders.
By making the translation and language sectors more visible and intensifying our contacts with the language industry, we are trying to bridge the gap between the skills required in real-life language jobs and the skills offered in higher education.
Despite the current economic crisis, the language sector is expanding and creating jobs. This is good news. I am pleased therefore to see that tomorrow we will have an entire session devoted to jobs in the language industry.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am always happy when I participate in the conferences organised around the European Day of Languages. I recall in particular the conference held two years ago in my homeland of Cyprus - not for sentimental reasons, but because it was on this occasion that we organised the first European Language Label of the Labels award ceremony. We showcased projects from almost all Member States that had distinguished themselves in terms of impact and European dimension. At the same time we acknowledged the important contribution of the European Language Label initiative to promoting multilingualism in innovative ways. I am pleased to say that the Language Label initiative will continue under the Erasmus+ programme.
I hope that these examples have given you a taste of the many initiatives and policies underway at EU level to encourage multilingualism. And even as my mandate draws to a close, I am confident that language learning and linguistic diversity will remain high on the EU political agenda, because, as we have seen, language ability brings more than just economic benefits. It encourages us to become more open to others, their cultures and attitudes. It promotes greater mental flexibility by allowing us to operate different systems of representation and a flexibility of perspective. It is a resource for thinking new thoughts, and this is what the European Union needs.
Thank you for your attention.