Multilingualism and policy

“Europe’s Wealth Consists Essentially in its Variety of Languages”

Europe speaks many languages. And it should continue to do so, as far as Professor Dr. Gerhard Stickel, President of the European Federation of National Institutions for Language, is concerned. We spoke with him about his vision of a multilingual Europe.

Professor Stickel, as President of the European Federation of National Institutions for Language, you have stood up for fostering the variety of languages in Europe. Isn’t linguistic variety an idea that stands in the way of economic considerations?

The preservation and further development of the great variety of European languages cost effort and money. It requires expensive translators and interpreters for the organs of the EU and for trade and movement across the many linguistic borders of Europe. To these costs must be added those for school instruction in foreign languages in the member states, which isn’t after all to be had for nothing. On the other hand, these costs shouldn’t be dramatised. All the translators and interpreters for the EU annually cost the individual citizen just under two Euro. The EU spends roughly the same for the subsidy of dairy cows in the member states.


The cultural value represented by the variety of European languages can’t be expressed in numbers. To this must be added the indirect educational value that comes with learning a foreign language. Europe isn’t particularly rich in mineral resources. Its real wealth consists in its cultural variety. And this rests essentially on its linguistic variety. The scientific, scholarly and cultural achievements and traditions of the Europeans are preserved in their languages. This would all be lost with a single, unitary language.

That linguistic variety fosters rather than hinders economic, scientific and cultural progress is demonstrated by European cultural history. The beginning of European modernity in science, economics and culture went hand in hand with the emancipation of the vernacular languages of Italian, Spanish, French, English, German and so on from the unitary language of the medieval European elites, Latin. As we know, the variety of European cultural languages that then developed didn’t impair but rather stimulated the creativity of Europeans.

Linguistic variety is looked upon as a major element of European identity. But wouldn’t a language of common use for culture and education be conducive to a common identity?

There is nothing to be said against an emergency language (or better two or three) for communicative emergencies in which there are no other means to make oneself understood. Identity, however, is always to do with the difference between one’s own and the Other and can’t be acquired through a language that is spoken by everyone. A globalised English (internationlish, globalish or McLanguage) will also be used outside Europe as an emergency language. It can therefore be quite useful for emergency cases in Europe, too, but is hardly suitable as the linguistic means of fostering a European identity.

How do you see the role of English for communication in the European Union?

"Yellow Edward"
von Anja Penner

MP3-Datei, 5:43 Min.
As the single language of common use in the EU, English would be bound up with the danger of diglossia, that is, a practical bilingualism. Eventually all important matters in economics, science and politics would be treated only in English. One dark day in the future, the only remaining domains for all the other languages would be those of the family, friends and folklore. Therefore EU institutions should insist upon the use of more than one working language. In this way, the situation of the “smaller” languages such as Estonian, Maltese or Danish, which hardly come into consideration as a working language, will also be indirectly bettered. In the long run, multilingualism will then be practised and felt to be normal.

What role do you see for English in the future?

In all probability, English will remain in the long term the international emergency language and language of common use. In this function, it will likely gain in significance, especially since in many countries outside Europe foreign language instruction is increasingly being reduced to English. As the language that everybody speaks, it will probably change in a way that people in the historically English-speaking countries won’t like. A language that is used by everybody is changed by everybody and belongs to no one any longer.

Do you think the concern is justified that the smaller languages in Europe will in the long term have only the significance that is today ascribed to dialects?

That depends on the people for whom these are their first languages and who use them. There is no discernible economic reason that the Basques should still be speaking Basque, or more precisely, that more Basque should be being spoken today than in the time of Franco. The only reason appears to be that they wish to keep and use their language and demand respect for this wish. Not that I mean to make out the Basques, with their sometimes terrible actions, to be a linguistic-political model. For me, they are simply an example for the fact that the development of languages is not exclusively conditioned by economics.

You once wrote: “Whoever wishes to keep his own language must learn other languages”. Is it your impression that the Germans do enough to maintain their own language?

They could and should do more for their own language. As the first PISA study showed, precisely German language instruction in the schools leaves much to be desired. Among other things, instruction in foreign languages and in German should be more strongly related to one another. There should be more commentaries on language in newspapers, on television and radio. (There are some, but too few.) Moreover, responsibility for the use of German as the national language should not be further devolved solely to the competence of the federal states (one of which even plugs itself with the slogan that it can do everything except speak High German). The common language, on which recently such great store has been set with respect to naturalisation, is not a regional concern but one for the national state.
To forestall a likely misunderstanding, let me say that no law should be passed for the protection of the German language. That political efforts have hitherto been confined to the linguistic side-issue of spelling reform, however, is characteristic of the slight state engagement for the German language. State support for a central institution that would co-ordinate the diverse tasks of language institutions, such as the Council for the German Language attempts to do, would contribute to the strengthening of the German language both domestically and abroad.

At Barcelona in 2002, the heads of state and government in the EU formulated the goal of “mother tongue plus two foreign languages”. The most recent Euro-barometer study on knowledge of languages among Europeans yielded the result that 44% of the citizens of the EU speak no other language than their native tongue. How realistic is the goal of “mother tongue plus two foreign languages” for all Europeans? Or is that rather a programme for elites?

There will always be people who don’t have a good command of even their native tongue. The goal of "M+2", however, is within the reach of most people if instruction is begun early enough. In many regions of the world, multilingualism is completely normal. In several smaller European countries like Finland or Luxembourg, bi or trilingualism is for most people a matter of course.

According to the Euro-barometer study, 51% of EU citizens speak English, 32% German and 26% French. Do you look upon this statistic as encouraging?

One should say about these numbers that they comprise both native and foreign speakers. Behind the 32% for German is concealed the fact that 18% of Europeans speak it as their mother tongue, but that only 14% have learned it as a foreign language. By contrast, only 13% speak English as their native tongue (that is, the people of Great Britain and Ireland), but 38% as a foreign language.
These statistics are not encouraging when compared with the results of earlier surveys by the Euro-barometer. It is important that the instruction in and learning of foreign languages in Europe not continue to be confined to English.

What could/should each individual concretely do in order to foster the idea of multilingualism in the EU?

a) At every occasion on an international level, everyone should use his own language as far as this will be understood. Thus Germans shouldn’t use their (often poor) English when the person they’re talking to understands German. They should also encourage their interlocutor to speak, for example, Italian, Spanish or French, if they themselves understand something of these languages. In general, “inter-comprehension” – where each speaks his own language and understands the languages of the other speakers – should be practised more.
b) Learning languages doesn’t become easier with age, but the much-propagated life-long learning should also comprise the learning of languages. Whoever has himself difficulty with foreign languages, should at least encourage his children and grandchildren to learn them.

Please venture for us a prognosis: How will the variety of languages in Europe develop in, say, the next 50 to 100 years?

Linguistic prognoses are as uncertain over a long period as are weather forecasts, especially since the development of languages depends less on linguistic than on social factors. But I can imagine two scenarios for the languages in Europe over the next 50 to 100 years, one pessimistic and the other optimistic. The pessimistic scenario: in coming years, the learning of languages will be increasingly confined to English. The interest in other languages will dwindle even with the people who speak them as their mother tongue. Italian, German, Dutch and other European languages will still be spoken, but now only within the family, while playing cards and at local fairs. All important affairs in the work world, in science and politics, on the other hand, will be increasingly dealt with in a creolised English (an American English sprinkled with French, German and Italian). In the British Isles, the British variant of English will become an ever more rarely used dialect.

The optimistic scenario: nearly all Europeans, that is, we Germans, the Italians, the Dutch, the Poles and so on, have made efforts and had our children learn well two other languages in addition to their mother tongues and perhaps to understand something of a few others. The only exception are the English. They have become used to nearly everybody else being able to speak more or less good English. They therefore long ago stopped learning other languages. As they are a sensible people, however, they will eventually notice that in this way their thought and perception have been narrowed. In their stubborn monolingualism, they have only a very restricted view on a world that has become increasingly complex. And as they don’t want to remain restricted, they swiftly and intensively learn at least two other languages and make sure their children do so too. And so all over Europe in 50 to 100 years it will again (or still) be linguistically and culturally varied, rich and creative.
Since I’m neither a sociologist, economist nor a prophet, I can’t say which of the two projections is the more probable. Naturally, I’d prefer the latter.
Dagmar Giersberg
conducted the interview. She works as a freelance journalist in Bonn.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
May 2006

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