EU languages and language policy

The EU, which has opted for institutional multilingualism, is one of the most multilingual polities in the world. It recognises the 23 (national/official) languages of the member states, and legislation, key political texts, as well as all parliamentary documents are translated into all EU languages, except those which are not legally binding. The latter are usually published only in English, French and German.

EU citizens can contact the European Commission in any of the official languages (Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish) and every member of the European Parliament has the right to speak in any of these languages. Moreover, EU citizens should be able to get information about what the EU is doing, have access to EU law in a language they can understand, and be able to participate in the law-making process of the EU.

Several EU countries have more than one official language (including Valencian/Catalan, Basque, Galician and Welsh), which will be covered by special rules in future, as arrangements are being negotiated with the countries concerned to bear the costs themselves.

Generally, the range of languages used on “Europa” (the European Union website) depends on technical constraints such as restricted budget for translation (funded by taxpayers) and urgency of the document to be published (in which case an important text first appears in one or a couple of languages and other languages are added later).

Languages are an important asset for the EU. They are viewed as an integral part of European identity and the most direct expression of culture. Recently they are also increasingly represented as a means for development and economic growth, and multilingualism is viewed an important element in Europe’s competitiveness. According to the European Parliament, in an EU founded on ‘unity in diversity’, the ability to communicate in several languages is a must for individuals, organisations and companies alike.

Policies for the maintenance of linguistic diversity

Linguistic and cultural diversity are ‘a fact of life’in the EU. As such, the European Parliament has adopted a full multilingual language policy. In its resolution of 24 March 2009 on ‘Multilingualism: an asset for Europe and a shared commitment’ (OJ C 117E, 6.5.2010, p. 59), the European Parliament reiterated its support for EU policies in the field of multilingualism and called on the Commission to draw up measures aimed at promoting linguistic diversity. It was in this context that, in 2009, the Commission launched the Civil Society Platform to Promote Multilingualism whose member organisations worked collaboratively to produce and publish Policy Recommendations for the Promotion of Multilingualism in the European Union in June 2011. The Civil Society Platform today is the independent organisation known by its acronym as ECSPM.

The EU endorses the language policy for linguistic diversity and multilingualism of the Council of Europe which has been promoting linguistic diversity and language learning in the field of education since 1954. In this context, protecting and encouraging plurilingualism and interculturalism are among the objectives pursued by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, open for ratification by member states since 1992. In addition, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which entered into force in 1998, the Council of Europe considers that a pluralist and genuinely democratic society should respect the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of each person belonging to a national minority.

The ECSPM endorses the Council of Europe’s policy for linguistic diversity and all policy proposals of European countries which encourage societal multilingualism and the development of citizens’ plurilingual and intercultural competence. One such document, published in 2018, endorsed by the ECSPM, is entitled Transnationalizing Modern Languages: Reframing language education for a global future’.

In 2018, the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education worked on an initiative report entitled ‘Language equality in the digital age – towards a Human Language project’ based on a study with the same title drawn up at the request of the Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment Panel. On 11 September 2018, the resolution ‘Language equality in the digital age’ was adopted in plenary session (Texts adopted, P8_TA (2018)0332). The ECSPM endorsed this action and has offered support to its partner, the federation by the name of “Cracking the Language Barrier”, which has submitted a proposal to execute this project, as described here.

The Cracking the Language Barrier federation assembles all European research and innovation projects as well as all related community organisations working on or with cross-lingual or multi-lingual technologies, in neighbouring areas or on closely related topics. In this umbrella initiative wecollaborate on our joint objective to overcome any kind of language and communication barriers with the help of sophisticated language technologies.

Policies for minority languages

The EU works with Member States to protect minority languages, based on the Council of Europe’s European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which it has endorsed. Moreover:

  • 2013: the European Parliament adopted a resolution on ‘endangered European languages and linguistic diversity in the European Union’ (OJ C 93, 9.3.2016, p. 52), calling on the Member States to be more attentive to endangered European languages and to commit to the protection and promotion of the diversity of the Union’s linguistic and cultural heritage.
  • 2016 (23 November): the European Parliament adopted a resolution on sign languages and professional sign language interpreters (OJ C 224, 27.6.2018, p. 68). Its purpose is to stress that deaf, deaf-blind and hard-of-hearing citizens must have access to the same information and communication as their peers in the form of sign language interpretation, subtitling, speech-to-text and/or alternative forms of communication, including oral interpreters.
  • 2017: A study on ‘Minority Languages and Education: Best Practices and Pitfalls’ was published. Having been commissioned on behalf of the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education, it investigated the situation of minority languages in education in 13 case studies.
  • 2018 (7 February): Τhe European Parliament approved a resolution on protection and non-discrimination with regard to minorities in the EU Member States (Texts adopted, P8_TA(2018)0032). This resolution encourages the Member States to ensure that the right to use a minority language is upheld and to protect linguistic diversity within the Union. It advocates for respect of linguistic rights in communities where there is more than one official language, and calls on the Commission to strengthen the promotion of the teaching and use of regional and minority languages.

Language learning and education policies

As part of its efforts to promote mobility and intercultural understanding, the European Union (EU) has designated language learning as an important priority, and funds numerous programmes and projects in this area including the Erasmus+ Programme, the Creative Europe Programme, the European Day of Languages, the European Language Label and Juvenes Translatores.

Various articles of the Treaty of the European Union refer to the importance of all EU’s languages, to the linguistic rights of EU citizens and to the aim of ‘developing the European dimension in education, particularly through the teaching and dissemination of the languages of the Member States’, while fully respecting cultural and linguistic diversity (Article 165(1) TFEU).

Given that the EU’s language policy is based on respect for linguistic diversity in all Member States and on the creation of an intercultural dialogue throughout the EU, it promotes the teaching and learning of foreign languages and, according to the 2002 Barcelona objective, every European student is to be given the opportunity to acquire his/her Mother tongue plus two more languages.

In line with the Barcelona objective and with the idea that multiple language competences are an advantage:

  • In 2011 the European Commission began to support earnestly Early Language Learning (ELL) and in the context of the European Strategic Framework for Education and Training (ET 2020) published a Working Paper on Language learning at pre-primary school level: Making it efficient and sustainable. A policy handbook, SEC (2011) 928 final.
  • In 2012 the European Commission published a staff working document, entitled Language competences for employability, mobility and growthas an accompanying document to the Communication from the Commission on ‘Rethinking Education: Investing in skills for better socio-economic outcomes’.
  • In 2014 the council of the European Union published a document making its conclusions regarding language teaching, learning and assessment, entitled Council conclusions on language competences to enhance mobility’.
  • In 2017 (17 November), in its contribution to the Social Summit held in Gothenburg, Sweden, the Commission set out the idea of a ‘European Education Area’ where by 2025, ‘in addition to one’s mother tongue, speaking two other languages has become the norm’ (COM(2017) 0673).
  • In 2018, following the Social Summit, the Commission published a Proposal for a Council Recommendation on a comprehensive approach to language education, which is important to the extent that it sets goals and priorities which are likely to impact language education in the EU in the years to come: a) Proposal on a Comprehensive Approach to the Teaching and Learning of Languages and b) Annex to the Proposal.

Feeding into the Proposal included above, and its Annex, is a contribution by a group of experts who had been invited by the European Commission as consultants. The document produced makes a case for change in current practices in schools from a human rights perspective, from an equity and inclusion perspective, and from a public health perspective, and maintains that in order to address today’s societal, economic and technological challenges, it is important to rethink the following basic concepts and they explain what each implies: rethinking literacy, rethinking multilingualism and rethinking mother tongue. This document is entitled: Rethinking Language Education in Schools.

In collaborating with the Council of Europe, the EU has accepted the promotion of signatory states to promote reciprocal teaching and learning of their languages, and more specifically

  1. to encourage the study by its own nationals of the languages, history and civilisation of the other Contracting Parties and grant facilities to those Parties to promote such studies in its territory;
  2. to endeavour to promote the study of its language or languages, history and civilisation in the territory of the other Contracting Parties and grant facilities to the nationals of those Parties to pursue such studies in its territory.

The Council of Europe actions seek to promote language learning, teaching and assessment for the development of learners’ plurilingual competence. One of its major projects, which began in the 70s led in 2001 to the publication of the Common European Reference for Languages (CEFR), which was designed to provide a transparent, coherent and comprehensive basis for the elaboration of language syllabuses and curriculum guidelines, the design of teaching and learning materials, and the assessment of foreign language proficiency.’ As noted in the document itself, ‘by providing a common basis for the explicit description of objectives, content and methods, the Framework will enhance the transparency of courses, syllabuses and qualifications, thus promoting international co-operation in the field of modern languages. The provision of objective criteria for describing language proficiency will facilitate the mutual recognition of qualifications gained in different learning contexts, and accordingly will aid European mobility.

The CEFR, available today in 40 different languages was recently enriched by the CEFR Companion Volume, which includes new descriptors complementing those which were included in the 2001 CEFR edition.

The Council of Europe activities in the area of language education policy have developed in response to the changing needs and priorities of its member states not only with regard to language learning but also to secure and strengthen language rights, deepen mutual understanding, consolidate democratic citizenship and contribute to social cohesion.

Research and implementation of multilingual policies

The EU supports two centres for research on multilingualism and language learning which are members/ partners of the ECSPM:

  • The European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML) which encourages excellence and innovation in language teaching and works to help Member States implement effective language teaching policies by focusing on the learning and teaching of languages, promoting dialogue and exchange of best practices, and supporting programme-related networks and research projects.
  • The European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning (Mercator), which is part of a network of five research and documentation centres and is specialised in regional and minority languages within the European Union.

The “Mobility and Inclusion in Multilingual Europe” (MIME) research project, financed by the European Commission (2014-2018) brought together 25 teams of researchers from 16 European countries to work in an interdisciplinary fashion. The project has generated a wide range of outcomes, including a PolicyBrief, and the Multilingual Challenge booklet.