Multilingualism and policy

Introduction To The Focal Subjects

"Multilingualism And Policy" – Multilingual Policy

Language policy is a relatively recent notion in European educational policy. In German in particular, where POLITIK does not distinguish between POLITICS, in other words the political system and the question of the power-oriented perception of things, and POLICY, the question of content, concepts and strategies, language policy seemed to play no role in the sphere of education and training.

But in fact language policy is a firm part of public life, home and foreign policy, and education and training – not least because multilingualism has accompanied the development of the human race and the emergence of states from the very beginning. The creation of single-language nation states was a very late invention of the 18th century; it involved delimitation and exclusion, and the suppression and expulsion of linguistic and other minorities, including religious ones. Language policy manifests itself in two intimately interwoven areas: on the one hand there is official and, at least partly, explicit language policy, governing the principles, rules, laws and funding used to propagate languages, and on the other there is the personal, individual dimension, the actions of people who learn languages, want to use them or even reject them. Involved here are two ways of accessing language, which play a role in both dimensions: languages have always been and still are instruments of communication and integration on the one hand and of delimitation and exclusion on the other, as demonstrated in the Old Testament by the Tower of Babel and in the New Testament by the Miracle of Pentecost.

Language policy

Without a considered and systematic language policy, individuals as well as education systems take decisions with at best short-term benefit, a society jeopardises any existing linguistic diversity as well as democratic and social cohesion.

The relation between language policy and multilingualism

One could argue that there is actually no need for systematic language policies in order to develop languages - can't we just leave the evolution and spread of languages, and also their disappearance, to the free play of forces, the market?

The European education and language programmes are based on the consensus that languages should not simply be seen as subject to the free play of supply and demand on the open market, but that there should be intervention through a targeted language policy:

“The pursuit of diversity and plurilingualism requires ... a political will and action to counteract economic factors and popular misperceptions, which will otherwise lead to reduction and homogenisation in general, with the plurilingualism of individuals only existing among social elites.” (Council of Europe, Guide for development of language education policies in Europe. Draft 2002, 17)

Against the multilingualism of the elite there is the poverty-based multilingualism with the less frequently learnt languages of the refugees and migrants from Africa and Asia: this is an explosive mixture that threatens the cohesion of society.

It is also only possible to preserve the German language and develop it further within the framework of a language policy geared to multilingualism: a language only develops and renews itself if people are willing to learn it as a foreign language as well (only thus does expertise develop, for instance in the form of dictionaries, translation skills etc.). If everyone were to learn only one language in addition to their mother tongue, it would not be German given the present conditions – multilingualism is then an essential condition for the existence of the German language.

Multilingualism in the context of the "Languages Without Borders" project

Within the Multilingualism project the purpose of the language policy debate is to

  • make clear to the public in general that the wealth of European languages can only be preserved and developed further if the European governments and bodies responsible for education formulate and implement systematic language policies aimed at greater individual multilingualism;
  • sensitise the general public to the fact that multilingualism represents a dimension of European integration – a key notion here is: European citizenship / democratic citizenship: European citizens can only participate in the information society in Europe as a whole if they learn other languages themselves and if others learn our language. Participation in Europe postulates multilingualism.
  • sensitise policy-makers and the general public to the fact that language rights are not divisible; in other words, migrants to Germany not only have the right and duty to learn German, but they also have the rights to preserve and develop further their languages of origin. Acquisition of the German language should not be such that it helps suppress and lose imported languages. Migrants contribute to the emergence of a multilingual society; their languages are not obstacles, but a source of wealth which should be incorporated.
  • point out to those with responsibility and the general public in German-speaking countries the relationship between multilingualism and the preservation of the German language. If only one foreign language is offered and learnt in all countries, it will normally be English. German only has a chance where two or more foreign languages are offered and learnt. Diversification of the language syllabus and multilingualism constitute a basis for preserving the German offered in the syllabus of the education system of other countries.
  • enhance the presence of the Goethe-Institut as one of the important centres of competence not only for the German language, but also as an important player in connection with European language policy, and to highlight the fact that it adapts its work for the German language to fit the context of a "policy for multilingualism.
Prof. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Krumm – Curator of the
"Multilingual Policy" part of the
"Languages Without Borders" project

Personal details:
Prof. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Krumm is Professor for German as a Foreign Language at the Institute of German Studies of the University of Vienna. His major research interests are linguistic and didactic grammar, regional cultural studies and intercultural communication, multilingualism, language and integration/migration, teaching behaviour and teaching analysis, as well as language policy.

    Migration and Integration

    Migration is changing cultures. The Goethe-Institut reflects these developments in Germany and around the world and dedicates its work to the linguistic integration of migrants.

    The Power of Language

    The impact of language in a globalised world