Roadmap to a Europe with a common language

, by Juuso Järviniemi

Roadmap to a Europe with a common language
Europe needs a common language, and English is our best bet. It’s time to make sure that Europeans learn English.

Participants at the European Youth Event 2016 were invited to make policy proposals that would help tackle European problems in the fields of democracy, employment, peace, sustainability and more. Among other things I proposed introducing European standards for English teaching. This modified version of the proposal can provoke discussion on the age-old question: how can we get a lingua franca for Europe?

Background: a shared democracy, a shared labour market, no shared language

Strengthening European identity across the EU and enabling all Europeans to participate in EU-wide political debates with their leaders are major challenges for the future of European democracy. Ensuring that all Europeans master a language that can connect people from Lapland to Andalusia is paramount to the European project. A common language strengthens the sense of belonging together, and holding discussions and public events without the aid of interpreters makes political discourse more natural and smooth.

Strengthening European citizens’ language skills is important not only for democracy but also for international labour mobility. As high-quality education everywhere in Europe guarantees that employers and employees can communicate at ease regardless of their countries of origin, one can more easily seek for jobs outside one’s home country. Therefore a genuinely common language for all Europeans would have the potential to tackle unemployment, particularly among the younger generations, and consequently generate economic growth.

A shared language can foster common identity regardless of whether it is everyone’s mother tongue in a given community. Europeans who can understand each other will be able to establish personal contacts, and regions such as Catalonia show that communities, some of the members of which have learned the emblematic language of the community as their second language, can develop strong shared identities. [Footnote 1]

The Spitzenkandidaten system employed for the first time in the 2014 European elections saw European politicians campaign not only to the citizens of their home countries but to voters in the whole EU. Assuming that this is the future of European democracy, language will take up a more significant role in the future. So that each voter can attend rallies featuring European leaders, they must have a common language with the politicians. The emergence of a segment of society excluded from European politics because it has no common language with the leading politicians of the EU would be a serious blow to European democracy.

According to Eurostat, in primary education ”a clear majority of pupils (choose to) learn English in the vast majority of EU Member States”, while in secondary education approximately 94 percent of students studied English as a foreign language in 2014. In the meantime, attempts to introduce languages not associated with particular nations or peoples as an international lingua franca have invariably been unsuccessful; only a small proportion of Europeans speak Esperanto, Interlingua, Volapük or other constructed languages.

For these reasons, English is the most logical choice as our shared language. Despite the fact that the great majority of European students have studied English at school, as per the Eurostat article cited above, the Special Eurobarometer 386 (page 21) shows that only 38 percent of EU27 citizens whose mother tongue was not English were able to hold a conversation in English in 2012. The corresponding figures for French and German, the two most widely known languages in Europe after English, were 12 percent and 11 percent.

Objective: every European fluent in English

In order to strengthen European democracy, identity and labour mobility via a genuinely common language, the European Union should introduce common standards for English education.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) can be utilised to assess students’ language skills across the EU. Each school in the European Union should commit itself to the goal of each student acquiring a command of English corresponding with the B2 level of the CEFR by the time he/she has completed his/her mandatory English modules.

If this objective were reached, all young Europeans would be able to interact fluently and spontaneously with each other. According to Cambridge ESOL, approximately 500 to 600 hours of guided study are needed to reach the CEFR B2 level. If students took three hours of English classes each week, this would equal approximately five to six years of study – for example, if the school year is 36 weeks long (180 days spent at school per year, with five school days a week), the goal of 600 hours of study would be reached in five years and a half.

Legislative measures: guiding schools towards the target

Since national and regional education systems vary across Europe, directives rather than regulations are the most appropriate legislative measures in this context. One must also note that there is only so much an educational institution can do to ensure that an individual student reaches the academic goals set by public administration; therefore it is questionable whether harsh penalties can be imposed on schools which fail to reach the objective stated above.

The study of English should be mandatory for each student in the European Union. A minimum target of 600 hours of guided English study should be adopted everywhere in the EU. Should this legislative measure not be taken, the following measures may, with minor modifications, also be applied to only those students who study English as required by national or regional legislation, or voluntarily.

At the end of their mandatory English study, all students should take an English test which allows the student’s competence to be assessed on the CEFR scale. Listening comprehension, reading comprehension, writing and speaking should be tested. Existing tests such as the IELTS and the TOEFL may be used as a tool for this final assessment, or a new European test may be created. The first final assessments for English proficiency should be conducted by 2027 in each school where students complete their last mandatory module of English.

Each year, schools which fail to reach the objective – that is to say schools in which no more than 75 percent of students displayed B2-level competence in the final assessment – should provide a written statement to European Commission Directorate-General for Education and Culture. The statement should explain why the target was not reached and specify the measures to be taken to improve the performance of the school.

A European guide for foreign language instruction, prepared by the European Commission, should be diffused to educational institutions to share best practice. The guide should serve as a point of reference for schools in their written statements.

One possibility is to provide earmarked funding for regions, municipalities or schools which are lacking in resources and therefore unlikely to reach the objective. Such funding should be carried out by the European Commission.


[1] The topics of language and national identity in a selection of plurinational European federations are discussed in further detail in Chapter 7 of Wilfried Swenden’s book “Federalism and Regionalism in Western Europe: A Comparative and Thematic Analysis” from 2006. PDF version of the book.

Your comments
  • On 10 February 2017 at 09:08, by Bill Chapman Replying to: Roadmap to a Europe with a common language

    There is clearly a case for making wider use of Esperanto within Europe. Esperanto is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states. Using it brings speakers of different mother tongues together without having to resort to English or a strong regional language.

    Not many people know that Esperanto has native speakers. See:

  • On 11 February 2017 at 20:04, by Istvan Ertl Replying to: Roadmap to a Europe with a common language

    No one has ever tried to introduce “languages not associated with particular nations or peoples” anywhere, except in the Vatican. There is no reason not to try Esperanto, which works pretty well, at a larger scale.

  • On 13 February 2017 at 19:51, by Seán Ó Riain Replying to: Roadmap to a Europe with a common language

    I thank the author for raising this important topic. The lack of a language to express a common pan-European identity merits serious consideration. Having worked for many years as an Irish diplomat in several EU countries (Germany, Austria, Poland, Belgium), and having written a Ph.D thesis on language policy in Ireland and Québec, I have a strong interest in this area.

    Should we be presenting a solution before this complex issue has been thoroughly and objectively discussed? The subject has never been raised at EU inter-governmental conferences, as it is felt to be politically too sensitive.

    The above article makes a good case for English, but there are several other factors to be considered.

    1. The Swiss economist, Professor Francois Grin, published a report in 2005 which showed that the present international position of English is responsible for financial transfers of €17-19 billion per year to the UK economy, and about 4% of that figure to Ireland, at the expense of all other Member States. How can this massive financial transfer be reconciled with the concept of equal opportunity, which is fundamental to long-term political stability?

    2. How can the use of one national language as a lingua franca be reconciled with the EU policy of supporting and promoting linguistic diversity? How does it contribute to linguistic diversity that over 90% of young Europeans study English in preference to all other European languages, even those of their closest neighbours?

    3. English is a world language, and the vast majority of its native speakers live outside Europe (even before Brexit). How can its use, therefore, contribute to the strengthening of a European identity? Is it not more likely that the choice of English would further strengthen American cultural dominance of Europe?

    4. Your article mentions the B2 level as a desirable goal for learners of English. This goal, already very difficult to reach for the majority of learners, would put them at a permanent disadvantage as regards native speakers of English, who are all at the C1, and many at the C2 level. The 2012 Surveylang, the first to test language competence objectively in several Member States, did not even test for the C1 level, as those who reach this level of English are a tiny minority of the order of 1% of learners.

    5. A recent publication, “Making Europeans and Governing Diversity”, available in 9 languages at, aims to give this matter more detailed and objective consideration. It is well worth reading. There are realistic alternatives to English, and some of them are outlined in this work by Judge Russell Blair.

    Again, thank your for opening a debate on this crucially important topic. But let’s not rush to conclusions without looking at the matter more comprehensively. It merits far more thorough consideration that it has received.

    Best wishes.

    Dr Seán Ó Riain

  • On 16 February 2017 at 08:06, by Elhana Replying to: Roadmap to a Europe with a common language

    Just two remarks:

     If 38% of some society can speak the same language, that is VERY good, a victory by itself.

     It is highly unlikely to expect a B2 level proficiency from teenagers, as such proficiency can never be reached unless the students set their personal lives, recreation and other discipline studies. Teaching anything over the course of six years with huge 4 month breaks is not effective, as most of this time it will be remembering what has been forgotten.

    Moreover, it is unfeasible to expect a high second/English language proficiency in Europe, where there are large, relatively well-being and self-sufficient countries like Germany, France, Italy, Poland, etc. English is just not anywhere in the necessities of population there, a common person can live and work well there without a second language study.

  • On 19 February 2017 at 17:03, by Khaled Soubani Replying to: Roadmap to a Europe with a common language

    Language is very important. The best approach is for a language to encouraged. Information and Communication Technology advances make it possible now to read foreign language texts on impulse. Even carry out live video conference conversation with speakers of languages you do not comprehend at all and without human mediation. So, keeping mind open on new language possibilities is wise.

  • On 12 November 2018 at 16:07, by Louis v. Wunsch-Rolshoven Replying to: Roadmap to a Europe with a common language

    The author quotes that only 38 percent of EU27 citizens whose mother tongue was not English were able to hold a conversation in English in 2012. So 62 percent were not able. The author suggests that these others should learn English - but the reality shows: Usually they don’t...

    One main problem is the fact that English needs a lot of hours. The author suggests that a minimum target of 600 hours of guided English study should be adopted everywhere in the EU. This means nearly half a working year - without any salary... (Except for the salary for the teachers which is quite expensive.)

    Esperanto can be learned a lot quicker. To reach the same level as with 600 hours of English it is enough to learn Esperanto for about 150 hours. Some studies are quoted here, in the Wikipedia .

    One further advantage of Esperanto is that it can be learned up to a higher level than English. This means one day the learner is able to write articles in English - nearly without making errors. It is usually very difficult in English to reach such a level in a lifetime.

    It seems that a lot of people have rather wrong ideas about Esperanto in general. The fact is that it is now a full language used for books, songs, Facebook, Wikipedia... It even is the mother tongue of some thousand Esperanto speakers.

  • On 13 November 2018 at 12:08, by Dr Seán Ó Riain Replying to: Roadmap to a Europe with a common language

    Europe with a common language

    Just to add to my comments above: as a native English speaker, and as somebody who has passed an exam in Esperanto at C1 level, perhaps I am in a good position to compare the two languages. For a host of reasons, Esperanto is a far better choice than English, but the whole matter merits serious, evidence-based consideration.

    It is very strange that the powers that be devote so little attention to this important question. Professor Robert Phillipson’s book, “English-only Europe?” was published in 2003 and an Esperanto translation, by István Ertl, appeared in 2004. Amazingly, 15 years later, this seminal book has not been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian or Polish. A Europe of sleep-walkers?

Your comments

Warning, your message will only be displayed after it has been checked and approved.

Who are you?

To show your avatar with your message, register it first on (free et painless) and don’t forget to indicate your Email addresse here.

Enter your comment here

This form accepts SPIP shortcuts {{bold}} {italic} -*list [text->url] <quote> <code> and HTML code <q> <del> <ins>. To create paragraphs, just leave empty lines.

Follow the comments: RSS 2.0 | Atom