21st May 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.

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  • 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.


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