Multilingualism

Europe and its languages: Babylonian chaos or expression of cultural diversity?

, by Florian Ziegenbalg

Europe and its languages: Babylonian chaos or expression of cultural diversity?

“United in diversity” is the official motto which the European Convention wanted to give the European Union. It is also very valid for the situation of languages in the European Union. When the ECSC was founded by the Six in 1951, there were only four languages to handle. Today, with the EU of the 25 we count 20 official languages with Irish becoming the 21st on 1st January 2007. With Bulgaria and Romania joining the Union at the same time there will be 23 official languages with the result of having 506 different possible combinations between the languages and three official alphabets.

In 2005 the Directorate General for Translation of the European Commission alone translated 1.3 million pages. Looking at the costs, about 1% of the EU budget is spent for translation. Each European citizen pays for translation and interpretation 2,28 Euro per year. But the money is not always spent in the most efficient way. MEP Alexander Stubb found out for his recently published report on the costs of interpretation that in 2003 about 16 % of the costs for interpretations were spent on interpretations that were not used in the end.

Talking about the languages in the EU, several considerations come into play. In a perspective of efficiency and cost saving, it is an expensive luxury. Living with only one or two languages would make most of the translation and interpretation work and staff obsolete. Additionally, delays resulting from translation would be reduced. But the first question which arises, if such a rigid language scheme would be introduced, would be the choice of the one or two languages. It is true that English has become the lingua franca of the modern life. Nevertheless, other languages can also claim to be spoken by a larger proportion of Europeans.

A recent survey of Eurobarometer confirmed that German is the leading mother tongue in the EU (18% of EU citizens). English and Italian are on the second rank (13%). The picture changes if the foreign language skills come into play. Here English prevails with 38% of the European citizens.

But are these proportions high enough to justify the introduction of a single EU-language? Opposition arises not only by those who are not familiar with this language, but also by those who fear that a one or two language scheme could result into a “cultural colonization”. Another option would be the introduction of a “neutral” language as Latin or Esperanto. But who is familiar with Latin? And Esperanto is perceived as an artificial language…

...diversity of languages is one major obstacle for the creation of a real trans-European public space...

The EU is often blamed for being a technocratic organization. Jean Monnet is quoted to have said that if he could start again the European project, he would start with culture. Languages are one of the most significant expressions of culture. They are not only means of communication, but also the result of permanent development. To take care of the diversity of European languages means also to acknowledge the cultural dimension of European integration. This can help to counter the arguments that European integration would destroy the existing culture and replace them an artificial single one.

Nonetheless, the diversity of languages is one major obstacle for the creation of a real trans-European public space. And to this there is a big argument for language learning in order to discover the different cultures and to be able to communicate with fellow Europeans. The formula 1 + 2 (mother tongue plus 2 foreign languages) sums up the ambitious but also necessary aim for the next years and for this reason more investments on language teaching have to be made.

Europe – United in diversity. Nothing better expresses the situation of languages in Europe. Taken seriously and adapted to the special needs of further integration, it can help to build up the Europe of tomorrow.

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* Movements Cities, source: Flickr

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Your comments

  • On 7 November 2006 at 19:10, by krokodilo Replying to: Europe and its languages: Babylonian chaos or expression of cultural diversity?

    The formula 1 + 2 (mother tongue plus 2 foreign languages) sums up the ambitious but also necessary aim for the next years and for this reason more investments on language teaching have to be made

    Why not the formule regional language+mother tongue+esperanto (only two years at school)+ one foreign language. esperanto is easier, and more cost-effective. Learning foreign language is a tough job, and it would not be possible for everybody to have enough time , and make enouch stays outside to become fluent. Besides, in your formule, as today, quite everybody will choose english as first foreign language, nothing new in your proposal. The idea that it is only a problem of number of teachers, or cost is false. Usually, big investments must provide something in return, not only the actual situation in EU.

  • On 8 November 2006 at 22:29, by ĉapelisto Replying to: Europe and its languages: Babylonian chaos or expression of cultural diversity?

    And what is the problem in being an “artificial” language? Works such as Old Testament, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Cervantes’ Don Quixote has been translated into Esperanto.

    The solution is to inform people about what Esperanto is, and what is not.

  • On 12 November 2006 at 05:16, by mankso Replying to: Europe and its languages: Babylonian chaos or expression of cultural diversity?

    It is almost beyond belief how Esperanto can be introduced, and then dismissed in one short sentence because it is supposedly “artificial”! Are you telling me that you refuse to live in an apartment, ride around in a car, or use a computer or telephone all because they are “artificial”? What nonsense! Totaler Quatsch!

    Esperanto might well be perceived as “artificial” by those who do NOT speak it - just as I perceive Indonesian and Welsh [no offence intended!] as strange, because I don’t speak these languages and know nothing about them. To people who DO speak Esperanto however, the language is not perceived as “artifical” at all, but as totally natural (as is any language that one speaks fluently). And anyway, the correct term is “planned” or “constructed”. The “artificiality”-argument is irrelevant.

    If you mean that Esperanto was invented out of thin air, you are quite wrong. I defy you to find me even one “artificial” root in Cherpillod’s Konciza Etimologia Vortaro [2003] of Esperanto. 99% of the roots which make up Esperanto are taken from already existing ethnic languages.

    And if you are telling me that people learn a language chiefly because they are interested in its literature and culture, then I would seriously doubt that. My guess is that most people simply want a wider means of communication. So why then learn an ethnic language that takes years to master and is culture-specific, when one is available that takes only 1/10 of that time, and is not culture-specific? Is that not masochistic?!

    A willingness to investigate ALL possible solutions would be most welcome. Ignoti nulla cupido!

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