Written by Ivana Katsarova.
Some 7 000 languages are spoken globally today. However, half of the world’s population shares just six native languages, and some 90 % of all languages could be replaced by dominant ones by the end of the century.
Following the success of the European Year of Languages (2001), the Council of Europe designated 26 September as the European Day of Languages.
National languages are a fundamental feature of a country’s cultural identity and an important element of its sovereignty. The European Union (EU) operates as a ‘family’, whose members preserve their cultural identity, a principle that is reflected in the EU motto ‘United in diversity’. When acceding to the EU, new Member States declare which of their languages will become an official EU language. Currently, the EU has three alphabets (Cyrillic, Greek and Latin) and 24 official languages, which are listed in the Treaties (Article 55(1) TEU). Alongside official EU languages, national sign languages and the languages spoken by the immigrant or refugee populations complete the linguistic picture of the EU.
EU countries are also committed to the preservation of regional or minority languages. The critical threshold for the survival of a language is estimated at 300 000 speakers. According to Unesco, there are 221 endangered regional and minority languages in the EU, which are not necessarily spoken within one and the same state. Their protection and promotion is ensured by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages adopted under the auspices of the Council of Europe in 1992, and ratified by 16 EU countries.
Multilingualism is not only an expression of the EU countries’ cultural identities but it also helps preserve democracy, transparency and accountability. No legislation can enter into force until it has been translated into all official languages and published in the Official Journal of the European Union. Crucially, the provisions relating to the EU language regime can only be changed by a unanimous vote in the Council of the EU.
Looked at from the supranational perspective of the EU, effective multilingualism can only be achieved if ways are found for citizens and bodies to communicate with each other – either by using a language other than their native one, or by setting up a comprehensive translation system. The EU has sought to facilitate both modes of communication, by supporting language learning in the Member States and by creating, maintaining and expanding a complex set of interpretation and translation services.
The EU promotes language learning but has limited influence over educational and language policies, as these are the responsibility of the individual EU countries. Statistics show that in 2016, over one third (35.4%) of the working-age adults in the EU-28 reported that they did not know any foreign languages. A similar proportion (35.2 %) declared that they knew one foreign language, while just over one fifth (21 %) said they knew two foreign languages. Younger people – 73.3 % of the EU’s population aged 25-34, and those holding university degrees (83 %) – reported that they knew at least one foreign language.
The European Parliament is committed to ensuring the highest possible degree of multilingualism in its work. Based on the 24 official languages, the total number of linguistic combinations rises to 552, since each language can be translated into the 23 others. Currently, over 1 000 translators and over 500 interpreters offer their services to the 705 Members of the European Parliament. Internally, the EU institutions mostly use just three working languages: English, French and German.
The overall cost for delivering translation and interpretation services in the EU institutions is around €1 billion per year, which represents less than 1 % of the EU budget or just over €2 per citizen.
Adoption of a single EU language has sometimes been considered, but democracy, transparency and accountability require that all EU citizens understand clearly what is being done in their name, yet as shown previously, over 35 % of all adults in the EU do not know any foreign languages. Moreover, respect for linguistic diversity is enshrined in the Treaties (Article 3(3) TEU) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (Article 22).
Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘European Day of Languages: Multilingualism as a cornerstone of better communication‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.