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.


  1. I think the EU would really stab its citizens in the back if English would be removed from the working language list. Not only that even after a UK withdrawal Ireland and Cyprus would qualify English as an official language, but English is the far most widely spoken language in the Union.

    How about German? As very few people speak it with pragmatic success outside those who learned it as a mother tongue, replacing English for German would make German-born EU citizens at a very uncomfortable competitive edge against others.

    I think this is a non-issue. The EU works fine with badly spoken English plus occasional French and German interventions.

  2. Just a small amendment. Obviously English is not an official language in Cyprus, it is an official language in Malta. It's the other island.

  3. Antal Daniel,

    I just wanted to remind people of the situation where the official languages of the member states have been made treaty languages and the official languages of the European Union.

    After discussing the language rights of EU citizens, multilingualism and the lost opportunities through the dubbing of films, I arrived at a discussion about English as the new lingua franca in the third post in this series.

    In short, if (better) English is one of the two foreign languages every child learns in school, we have at least one means of communication between all EU citizens within a few generations.

  4. Online multilingualism is one of my very favourite subjects, and I've enjoyed your series of posts.

    There are 2 very different levels here when discussing the EU.

    On the one hand, certain official languages are recognised - an EU law cannot *be* a law (or transliterated into a national one) in a country until it has been translated into the country's official language(s). This is only right and proper, and it dominates the EU's translation resources.

    On the other hand, there is the need for a lingua franca for cross-EU exchanges, including what we call the European public space (or sphere, if you prefer).

    I totally agree that this is important in its own right - learning another language should be seen as more than just a practical, useful tool for one's career or going on holiday. We need to understand each other if Europe is to hold itself together. If you don't believe me, look at Belgium.

    What language? To be honest, I don't care - just as long as we can understand each other. Given English's predominance as a second language, it's an obvious candidate. But English will not die out if it's something else, just as Lithuanian will not die out if it is not spoken much in Brussels.

    In reality, this second level of multilingualism will not be mandated by law. It'll emerge following the laws of complex systems (network effects, economies of scale, barriers to entry, critical mass and so on). You might as well legislate against tidal flow.

  5. Mathew,

    I broadly agree with you, as the blog posts on different aspects show.

    However, it depends on political decisions if we learn two foreign languages (including non-EU ones) in school and one of these is English.

  6. Should that political decision be made in Brussels? I'd hope not ...

  7. Mathew,

    Actually I think that a broad and open European consensus would be an excellent thing, based on:

    1) linguistic rights for EU citizens;
    2) promotion of multilingualism (two foreign languages for all);
    3) no dubbing of TV and film soundtracks; and
    4) English as one of the two foreign languages for all non-native speakers.

    By all means, take the decisions in the national capitals, if it feels better.


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