Multilingualism and Economy

The European Economy – No Chance On The Global Market Without Multilingualism

The European Union is one big Switzerland. A street in Zurich. Copyright: ColourboxThe European Union is a little like a big Switzerland – a common economic zone with more than one language. According to Swiss researchers nine per cent of the Swiss gross domestic product can be ascribed to its multilingualism. Even if so far nobody has tried to calculate the economic benefits that come with multilingualism for Europe, it can be assumed that business in the EU also profits from its myriad of languages. Multilingualism however is by no means a sure-fire success, it requires targeted support.

This was also the view put forward by the “Business Forum On Multilingualism”, a top-level committee comprising representatives from European business. At the request of Leonard Orban, EU Commissar for Multilingualism, the forum tackled the question of how a knowledge of foreign languages can affect business and jobs in the EU. The group, chaired by Etienne Davignon, the former Vice-President of the European Commission, worked its way through case studies and research reports – among them the ELAN Study from 2006 that among other things proved that many small and medium-sized companies in Europe lose business due to linguistic and cultural deficits.

Encouraging the workforce

Leonard Orban, EU Commissar for Multilingualism and patron of “Languages Without Borders”. Copyright: European Communities, 2009The most significant conclusions drawn by the business forum was that if Europe does not learn to exploit the economic potential of multilingualism in a better way, it will fall way behind even the threshold countries in these times of global competition. For it is these emerging countries, above all in Asia and Latin America, that have vastly improved their knowledge of other languages.

According to the committee, many companies have to first ascertain which, if any, languages are spoken at all by their staff in order to be able to use them strategically on a business level. It was recommended to the companies that they re-examine their hiring procedure, their training strategies and principles of mobility and then, if necessary, alter them with the aim of motivating the staff to both apply and further develop their knowledge of other languages. This also includes both recognising and exploiting the economic benefits of employing people with an immigrant background who have a different native tongue.

Half of the companies have multilingual websites. Copyright: Goethe-Institut

Furthermore extra emphasis is to be placed on multilingualism in the field of internet communication and advertising. According to the ELAN Study about half of small and medium-sized companies do in fact have multilingual websites to promote their internet presence.

Knowledge of foreign languages in some cases even on a downward trend

The experts feel that it is not just the companies that are responsible but also the politicians - at regional, national and European level. Even though the governments at the summit in Barcelona in 2002 agreed that every EU citizen ought to learn two other languages besides their mother tongue, we are still a long way from achieving this goal. In some countries – in Austria, for example – the trend is even retrogressive. This is why learning foreign languages has to be promoted at all levels of the educational system and the range of languages available should be widened, too. In the opinion of the experts it is not just a matter of the formal language learning situation in schools and universities, the informal situation has to be promoted, too. For example, great importance should be attached to exchange and mobility programs.

The Flag of the European Union. Copyright: Colourbox Business would also be given a huge boost if a so-called “One Stop Shop” was set up on the internet that would provide comprehensive information to companies on support programs and exemplary projects in the field of multilingualism. Anybody who has ever tried to hack his way through the server jungle of European institutions to get hold of some information knows just how demanding a task it will be to put the business forum’s demands into practice.
Christoph Brammertz
Goethe-Institut online editorial office

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
February 2009

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copyright: Europäische Kommission
Under the patronage of Leonard Orban, Member of the European Commission responsible for multilingualism


With texts, sound reports and photos, reporters cover four selected projects within the “Multilingualism – Languages without Borders” initiative.