European Day of Languages Start Talking

Multilingualism is the precondition for a productive European culture.
Multilingualism is the precondition for a productive European culture. | Photo: © treenabeena - fotolia.com

Every year on 26th September Europe celebrates its linguistic diversity. Numerous cultural institutes take part in the European Day of Languages (EDL). What, however, is it really all about?

When people speak more than one language, it is not just the individual that benefits from it, but the whole of society. Linguistic skills in several languages not only encourage an understanding for other cultures and improve people’s opportunities on the job market, but are also an important factor if individual companies are to grow. Even when it comes to such noble political goals as international understanding and the promotion of democracy multilingualism can make a substantial contribution.

Due to its linguistic diversity Europe provides the best conditions for people to enjoy a multilingual way of life. It is not just languages like German, English or French that are part of the European tradition, but also languages like Basque, Catalan or Galician. In order to safeguard the existence and future of these languages the EU initiated the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages way back in 1992. This ensured, on the one hand, that people had the right to use a regional or minority language not only in their private sphere, but also in public. On the other hand, the charter included the obligation to create and maintain opportunities and situations in which regional and minority languages could be spoken.

The European Year of Languages that was organised by the Council of Europe and the EU in 2001 also embraced the tradition of promoting linguistic diversity and facilitating the learning of languages. It was the success of this project that spawned the idea for the European Day of Languages that has been held since 2002 every year on 26th September and which language and cultural institutes, associations, universities and, above all, schools take part in.

Language courses on the tram

Whether it is with a language café or an e-magazine, a writing competition or a radio show, a language course or a conference – on this day everybody is invited to champion European multilingualism as a valuable resource. With the help of its international partners the European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML) in Graz, Austria, offers a platform that provides an overview of events both in Europe and all over the world and posts all the information on its website. As an institution of the Council of Europe that introduced the celebration day in 2001 as part of the European Year of Languages, the ECML also collaborates with the EU.

In 2014, there were over 640 events registered and the European Day of Languages website had three million hits. “In Graz, for example, there was a linguistic tour through the city on the ‘Language Bus’ on which language courses were given by speakers of all kind of languages, some of which were not so well known. This enabled people to start talking to each other, which at best can have a positive effect on people’s lives,” says Susanna Slivensky, Program Director and Vice Director of the ECML. She went on to say that even beyond the borders of Europe interest in the European Day of Languages was growing, mainly due to cooperation partners in Canada and Hong Kong.

Wonderful rhetoric on multilingualism

There are, however, some quite definitely critical voices. “It is important that on this day educational institutions affirm the meaning of multilingualism. The effects of this day of celebration, however, are not sustainable, but unfortunately fizzle out rather quickly,” says, for example, Ingrid Gogolin, an educational scientist at the University of Hamburg and an expert on multilingualism.

According to Ms Gogolin on the European political level there is in fact a “wonderful rhetoric on multilingualism” and in the fields of both research and practice there are numerous individual projects, like the research focus on multilingualism at the University of Hamburg and the multilingualism portal of the city of Manchester, but no way can we speak of a coherent strategy. “As long as politicians in Bavaria publicly advocate the banning of Turkish in school playgrounds, we cannot expect parents living in upmarket districts to beat the drum for multilingualism. In this respect the EDL is nothing more than a drop in the ocean.”

English reigns supreme

Surveys do in fact actually show that in Europe when it comes to multilingualism the gap between goal and reality is still very wide. Back in 2002 the European Council already decided that every EU citizen should be able to speak two other languages beside his or her own mother tongue. And in some of the smaller countries like Luxembourg, Malta and Sweden this is actually the case. In larger countries it looks different. Instead of linguistic diversity it is still English that reigns supreme as a foreign language. Furthermore other surveys have revealed that in total only half of all Europeans speak a foreign language. Only 42 per cent of all children and teenagers under 14 say that they can speak their first foreign language well.

Ms Slivensky, too, still sees a strong need for action. “We have to get the message across that English alone is not conducive to multilingualism. Instead we have to start including the languages of our neighbours and immigrants. And even though we know that understanding that goes beyond linguistic and cultural borders is a very vital aspect of communication on a European level, the language issue still does not enjoy the priority it should in top-level politics.” We can only hope that the EDL will sustainably arouse a new awareness for the importance of multilingualism in Europe.