The European Day of Languages Celebrating Europe’s linguistic diversity

The European Day of Laguages
© EFSZ Graz

The European Day of Languages - celebrating Europe’s linguistic diversity for 18 years! Find out about the origins of the Day, why it has become so popular, what is happening in 2019 and how you can get involved this year on 26 September – with some suggestions on resources to use…

Why celebrate languages?

It is estimated that there are between 6.000-7.000 languages in the world today. Approximately 225 of these are indigenous to Europe. Whilst a few languages are spoken by hundreds of millions of speakers, most are spoken by only a few thousand, or just a handful of speakers. In fact, 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by just 4% of the people. Although a monolingual way of life is often perceived as the norm, between a half and two-thirds of the world’s population is bilingual to some degree, and a significant number are plurilingual. Plurilingualism is much more the normal human condition than monolingualism.

By the age of 21 it is estimated that we have uttered some 50 million words, although I am sure we all know some people who have managed a lot more… For these reasons alone languages would deserve special celebration but in fact there are many more!

The European Day of Languages is held each year on 26 September. It provides an opportunity to raise awareness of all the languages represented in today’s Europe and highlight their similarities, their differences as well as some of their quirks. Most of all, however, it is a celebration of Europe’s unique linguistic context and an impetus for people of all ages and walks of life to also learn to communicate, (and be understood!) in a language in addition to their own. Around the Day thousands of events take place, often dealing with very different topics and audiences but with the same inherent premise – to encourage language learning.

What are the origins of a Day celebrating languages?

The European Day of Languages is one of the direct outcomes of the 2001 European Year of Languages, which was coordinated jointly by the Council of Europe and the European Commission. Following on from the success of the Year of Languages, on the eve of the final event of the Year, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe declared a European Day of Languages, to be celebrated each year on 26 September. The Day which is “…organised in a decentralised and flexible manner according to the wishes and resources of member states” was officially launched in 2002 with three specific objectives:
to alert the public to the importance of language learning, in order to increase plurilingualism and intercultural understanding;
to promote the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe;
to encourage lifelong language learning in and out of school.The initiative is strongly supported by the Council of Europe, the European Commission and by member countries. ‘National Relays’ based in 48 countries promote the European Day of Languages, liaising with event organisers and the media, as well as sending out EDL materials.

Why has it become so popular?

There are probably as many reasons as events – however there are certainly a few major factors that have led to the Day’s increasing popularity! First and foremost – it is fun! It might be the only day in the year when pupils see their teachers dressed up in what they consider to be the national costumes of other countries or a school assembly in Glasgow sings la Marseillaise! Of course, there is also a strong educational element to the Day. It is an opportunity to learn more about the different languages and cultures which surround us. Whether linguists or not, many people are genuinely fascinated by other languages and even learning a few words during a taster session can be the start of a lifelong passion! The Day is also about valuing all languages – not just those regarded as the dominant ones. Children coming from different language and cultural backgrounds often become stars on the Day, as they are able to teach their schoolmates about the language/s that they speak in addition to the ones they use in school. In 2018, around 1,300 events, taking place in 51 countries, were registered on the official EDL website. The site receives millions of visits each year.

Although the majority of events are initiated by schools, a significant number are coordinated by language associations and cultural institutes. The Goethe Institut, the British Council and the Institut Français along with other cultural institutes organise EDL events around the world both independently and together under the auspices of EUNIC. The Day has been exported to every continent in the world (with the possible exception of Antarctica – yet!). In 2015 the Goethe Institut organized a literary flashmob in 13 cities in South America on the occasion of the EDL!

What is happening in 2019?

Each year the European Centre for Modern Languages of the Council of Europe launches an EDL initiative. In 2017 the EDL established a ‘world record’ for the largest number of videos (2800) submitted on the theme of languages.

The competition, inviting people to say ‘Why they love a particular language’, produced a wealth of creative and amusing video clips (in fact 12 hours of them!). In 2018 ‘How multilingual is your classroom/organisation’ highlighted multilingual Europe in practice, by showcasing Europe’s most language rich classrooms and workplaces.

The language challenge – what do you dare to do in a foreign language?

For September 2019 we are inviting everyone to participate in a language challenge. The 51 challenges (to be published on the EDL website in May) encourage learners to go a little outside their comfort zone and take advantage of the plentiful opportunities available to practice or learn more about a language beyond a classroom context. The final challenge encourages learners to create a short video based on ‘What do you dare to do in a foreign language?’ – a selection of the videos will then be published on the EDL website.

Getting involved – resources and competitions

A huge variety of events take place on and around the Day bringing people from different backgrounds and cultures together – just a few examples are:
  • seminars on multilingualism,
  • language days for the elderly,
  • social media days for small languages,
  • world record attempts,
  • language taster courses,
  • ‘Eurovision’ song contests (on a smaller scale than the one on television!),
  • polyglot gatherings,
  • language cafés,
  • neighbouring languages’ festivals,
  • poetry slams,
  • theatre and dance performances and increasingly
  • ‘speak-dating’ events!
New ideas and creativity are always welcome!

The EDL website in 37 languages offers an array of features and resources to help celebrate the Day, such as:
  • calendar of events featuring activities taking place in celebration of the Day;
  • facts, figures, promotional materials and lots of trivia on languages;
  • online games and quizzes to test your knowledge of spoken and sign languages, such as an ‘Identify the language’ game, as well as idioms, palindromes, tongue-twisters and many more examples of Europe’s rich linguistic landscape;
  • competitions, such as the ‘Design an EDL T-shirt’ and the most innovative EDL event.

Whilst you may not become an instant polyglot in the space of the 18th edition of the European Day of Languages – if you do decide to get involved, it will almost certainly be an enjoyable and rewarding experience!
European Day of Languages © Council of Europe