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 growth’ as 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
- 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;
- 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.