23rd Mar 2019

Multilingualism a 'damned nuisance' says Dutch academic

On the eve of the release of the European Commission's first-ever communication on mulitlingualism, a Dutch academic has called multilingualism "a pain in the neck" at an EU debate on the topic in Brussels.

Abram de Swaan, emeritus research professor for social science at the University of Amsterdam, put a cat amongst the pigeons at a recent debate organised by the European Commission by attacking the need to employ multiple languages.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Commissioner Orban encouraging European citizens to speak other languages (Photo: European Commission)

"Language diversity is not of itself a wealth, treasure or richness. On the contrary: it's a damned pain in the neck," he said on at the debate exploring whether multilingualism is a bridge or a barrier to intercultural dialogue within the EU, jointly organised last Thursday (12 September) with the European Union of National Institutes of Culture - the group that brings together language promotion organisations such as the Goethe Institut and the Alliance Francaise.

Mr de Swaan said he believes that the complexity of European communication is leading to an impoverished political debate, and, curiously, it is the very usage of a multiplicity of languages that is leading to the dominance of English.

"[Multilingualism] makes it very, very difficult for us to communicate and have a shared public space in which the citizens of Europe can congregate and act out European politics. It's a damned nuisance," Mr de Swaan added.

"Cultural diversity is guaranteed much more by the free-flowing traffic and the encounters between people in one language community in which they can clash and argue, than by the fact that some people can speak more than one language - and all those languages may basically represent the same culture."

"The more languages we allowed to flower, the more English will prevail. And that is exactly the present predicament of the European Union."

'Adopt' another language

The debate was the fifth of seven planned gatherings as part of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue that have taken place in Brussels throughout 2008, with each debate taking on a specific sectoral view on intercultural dialogue, such as media, arts, the workplace, inter-religious dialogue, education, integration and, on Monday - language.

Sandra Pralong, a member of the so-called "group of intellectuals for intercultural dialogue" much preferred a multilinguistic option for Europe, and suggested that every European should "adopt" another language that would be his or her second mother tongue - a key recommendation of her clatch of boffins.

Several members of the audience in Brussels however pointed out that the panel was "preaching to the converted", by promoting multilingualism in the already very international Brussels environment.

In the EU capital, thousands of children are schooled in one language, speak to their parents in one or two other languages, have a nanny they address in yet another language and playground friends who speak a whole set of other languages.

Commissioner Orban however very much sided with Ms Pralong.

"Multilingual people act as intercultural mediators and therefore are a precious asset to Europe," Leonard Orban, the Romanian commissioner for multilingualism said in his own proficient English.

'Languages are one of the most effective tools for achieving intercultural dialogue," he said, although his comments did seem to concede some of the Dutch academic's points: "But we must recognise that diversity can also act as a barrier between cultures," the commissioner, whose native language is Romanian and also speaks French upon request.

"Excessive assertion of identity can lead to intolerance and fanaticism. Accepting linguistic and cultural diversity is a powerful antidote to extremism."

On Wednesday, Mr Orban is expected to launch a new strategy - the first in his time as commissioner - which brings cultural, national identity and business issues together into one policy. One of the aims of the non-binding strategy would be for EU citizens to speak at least two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue.

"I'm not convinced by the arguments of those who propose just one or two languages as the sole means of intercultural exchange," Mr Orban concluded.

According to a number of studies, EU businesses loses hundreds of thousands of euros each year due to communication barriers.


Copyright and (another) new Brexit vote This WEEK

The UK parliament will likely hold a third vote on the Brexit withdrawal deal next week, determining the UK's departure from the bloc. In the meantime, the controversial copyright reform will be on the EU parliament's agenda.


Campaigning commissioners blur the lines

EU commissioners campaigning for a national post have to take a leave of absence - while those running for an EU job do not. This distinction undermines the effort to close the gap between EU and national politics.

Slovakia puts squeeze on free press ahead of election

Smer, Slovakia's ruling party, wants the country's media to give politicians a right-of-reply, or face stiff fines. Advocates of a free press are alarmed, and it poses a problem for the European Commission, whose vice-president is a Smer presidential candidate.

News in Brief

  1. EU leaders at summit demand more effort on disinformation
  2. Report: Corbyn to meet May on Monday for Brexit talks
  3. Petition against Brexit attracts 2.4m signatures
  4. Study: Brexit to cost EU citizens up to €40bn annually
  5. NGOs demand France halt Saudi arm sales
  6. Report: Germany against EU net-zero emissions target
  7. Former top EU official takes job at law firm
  8. Draft text of EU summit has Brexit extension until 22 May


Copyright and (another) new Brexit vote This WEEK

The UK parliament will likely hold a third vote on the Brexit withdrawal deal next week, determining the UK's departure from the bloc. In the meantime, the controversial copyright reform will be on the EU parliament's agenda.


All about the European Parliament elections 2019

EUobserver's new magazine is meant to help readers prepare for the European Parliament elections, no matter their level of knowledge. You can download and read the entire magazine now.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  4. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  5. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  8. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID

Latest News

  1. Italy takes China's new Silk Road to the heart of Europe
  2. What EU leaders agreed on climate - and what they mean
  3. Copyright and (another) new Brexit vote This WEEK
  4. EU avoids Brexit crash, sets new date for 12 April
  5. Campaigning commissioners blur the lines
  6. Slovakia puts squeeze on free press ahead of election
  7. EPP suspends Orban's Fidesz party
  8. Macron is confusing rigidity with strength

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  2. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  4. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  6. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  7. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us