27th Oct 2016

Europeans must learn more languages, commissioner says

  • Multilingualism commissioner Leonard Orban celebrating the European day of languages (Photo: European Commission)

Europeans should learn more foreign languages and not think that a "lingua franca" – one language used internationally - is enough, EU commissioner for multilingualism Leonard Orban said on Wednesday (26 September).

Currently, 56 percent of Europeans feel they could have a decent conversation in at least one foreign language, while 28 percent feel comfortable in at least two.

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But as many as 44 percent say they do not speak any language besides their mother tongue, according to a European survey published last year.

English is the most learnt foreign language in the European Union (38%), followed by French and German which jointly share second place at 14 percent.

However, both commissioner Orban and Wolfgang Mackiewicz, President of the executive committee of the European Language Council, dismissed claims that learning one language is enough in a multicultural Europe.

"Our aim is to give the European Union, within a reasonable period, a new generation of multilingual citizens. This can be the vivid proof that our motto, ‘united in diversity' is not a utopia", the commissioner said to mark the European day of languages.

The situation is much more diverse than one could think and speaking English is not enough in today's Europe, said Mr Mackiewicz, who was presenting a report on multilingualism drawn up by a group of 11 experts.

"In the 1990s, the EU's language policies focused on individuals (…). Today, it is the European project that needs multilingualism", not just the individuals, Mr Mackiewicz pointed out.

Since the 1990s, the number of languages in the EU has increased from 11 to 23 and this is without counting the hundreds of new dialects now spoken in the 27-member bloc, he emphasised.

The role of minorities

The report makes several suggestions in order to improve language diversity in the EU.

It argues that migration can have very positive aspects as far as intercultural dialogue is concerned.

"All too often, migrants are only seen as a problem (…) What is often overlooked is the fact that migrants constitute a valuable language resource", the report reads.

"By giving value to migrant languages in our midst, we may well enhance migrants' motivation to learn the language of the host community (…) and enable them to become competent mediators between different cultures", it continues.

The media also has a role to play. It can contribute to "pulling down barriers between different communities living in our societies" while subtitled TV programmes rather than dubbed programmes aid language learning.

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