Thursday, 6 May 2010

My Europe Week: Why language rights and multilingualism?

If you are an English nationalist, you might want the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union, but the EU to cut administrative waste by adopting English as its sole language.

If your first wish came true, after UK secession English would be formally supported by the membership of Ireland, where Irish is officially the first language (although English dominates in practice), and Malta, where Maltese is the national language, but English is one of the two official languages.

Even today, English is not the most widely spoken mother tongue in the European Union; German is, by a clear margin. As a percentage of the EU population, English and Italian share second position, followed by French just a percentage point behind.

Spanish and Polish share the next step downwards, with Dutch a level below.

For an overview, I recommend that you read the Wikipedia article Languages of the European Union.

What makes English special among the 23 official EU languages is the ability of 51 per cent of the population to speak it (to a degree).

Linguistic diversity

According to the Lisbon Treaty, the European Union has an obligation to respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity (Article 3 TEU).

There is an EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, Androulla Vassiliou (despite Wikipedia’s failure to update).

The EU’s language policy promotes multilingualism and aims for a situation in which every EU citizen can speak at least two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue.


In my view, the European Union exists in order to serve its citizens, not the other way around.

Legal acts, legislative proposals, policy proposals and important media communications have to be translated into the official languages of the union.

We must have the right to know the law of the union, which binds us directly or indirectly, and we have to have possibilities to participate in the democratic life of the EU.

As EU citizens, we have the right to address the institutions in any of the treaty languages and to obtain a reply in the same language (Article 20 TFEU).

Despite the manpower and cost, interpretation and translation are necessities, not targets for cost-cutting.

The positive multilingualism agenda goes further. If we learn foreign languages, we can exercise our freedom to move and to reside more freely, or just land a better job without leaving our home turf.

In a Europe where national identities have been constructed, monuments erected, (school) history books written and political careers established on the basis of “glorious” slaughter of the maximal number of neighbours, there is a categorical imperative for a deeper understanding of their experiences and cultures, beyond the practical benefits of language learning.

The emerging European public sphere offers us contemporary opportunities for cross-border communication about our common future and our shared concerns. and My Europe Week are but two small examples of a growing trend towards common understanding.

Europe Day 9 May 2010 is worth a Mass for a better future.

Ralf Grahn

Update 6 May about 13:30 EET: There are now 41 posts on's web page dedicated to #MyEurope Week.