OFFICIAL LANGUAGES AND LANGUAGE DIVERSITY IN THE EUROPEAN
1.-EUROPE: A LINGUISTIC MOSAIC
At the beginning of Europe’s history, in the late Middle Ages, the inhabitants of the
continent spoke many different languages. However, the spoken word was the only version of these languages since the language used for writing in most of the continent was Latin;
the church used Latin and so did the educated section of the population. Over a period of
time, the many languages came of age, they started to be used for literary works, achieved
political support, were written, until they finally took the place of Latin. The printing press first, and the nationalistic language ideology later, made popular in the 19th century,
contributed to the establishment of a specific role for the different languages.
Today, “from the Adriatic to the Urals”, to quote General De Gaulle, there are about 36
sovereign, independent states which use at least 33 different official languages. To these a further 20 non-official languages should be added. More than 70 languages is certainly a lot
of languages, but this number pales into insignificance when compared to the five or six
thousand languages spoken all over the world. Most of these, however, are used by a very
small number of speakers, who do not use the written word or have any political weight. Most of the languages spoken in Europe have a cultural tradition with a greater or lesser
cultural weight and an equally important political support. This fact makes it possible to
Side by side to this cultural diversity, all the peoples of Europe have had frequent and
intense contacts at all levels ever since their beginnings. This, of course, meant the need for
a common language. Thus, when Latin was replaced, a European language took its place -
at one point it was French-, even artificial languages were suggested for this purpose. Now, while the world is under a globalisation process and trans-national relationships are
increasing, the need for a common language is even greater. This situation creates a
growing tension between the trend to use a common language and the will to maintain
European languages not only differ in their origin and history, they also differ in other
aspects, such as the number of speakers of each language. In this respect we find four
Languages spoken by over 10 million people. Among them we find, German with 90
million, English 60 million (The United Kingdom and Ireland), French 60 million,
Italian 58 million, Spanish 40 million, and Greek and Czech both with 10 million
Languages spoken by between 1 and 10 million people. Among them Bulgarian 8,3
million, Catalan 6 million Slovak 5,4 million, Estonian 1,6 million, Sardinian 1,3
Languages spoken by less than one million people: Basque 600 thousand, Welsh 600
thousand, Maltese 400 thousand, Luxembourger 350 thousand, Breton 180
Languages spoken by under 100.000 people: Friulian 80 thousand, Aromunian 60
Also, European languages differ in their use: we have those with great literary tradition and those which hardly have one; languages used in all social occasions whilst others are
reserved to every day and domestic use. Among the latter there are those which have not
reached a minimum codified level thus making their transcript into the written word
Finally, languages differ in their legal and administrative status. After states reached the
highest level of political organisation, languages suffered a division of enormous
consequences such as the distinction between official and non-official languages. Among
non-official languages, it is possible to see two levels according to their legal and
administrative status: non-official languages, with a co-official status in territories with a
certain degree of autonomy- like Basque and Catalan in Spain, or Faeroe spoken in the Faeroe Islands (Denmark); languages that without being co-official deserve some kind of
state protection, like Welsh in the United Kingdom, or Frisian in the Netherlands;
languages with no protection which are simply tolerated, like Breton in France and finally,
languages whose existence is officially denied ant its use forbidden, these last ones shall not even be mentioned here.
The great diversity of characteristics which distinguish European languages sometimes
causes paradoxes. For instance, we see that there are non-official languages with a larger
number of speakers used in more and different aspects of cultural expression than many of the official languages with all their official benefits. These paradoxes became more evident
with the drastic distinction between official and non-official languages made by the
2.- THE EUROPEAN UNION: OFFICIAL LANGUAGES /WORK LANGUAGES
The Treaty of Rome where the European Community, predecessor of the present
European Union, was created, strictly dealt with economic issues. However, immediately
after its creation, decisions over the linguistic functioning of the new entity had to be taken.
Contrary to the practice of distinguishing between official and work languages, which is actually common practice in many international organizations, it was agreed that the
languages of all member states would be both official and work languages in the new
institution. These languages were French, German, Dutch and Italian. Irish which is co-
official with English in the Irish Republic, had a special treatment which determined that only fundamental documents would be translated.
As time went by, the Community grew in member states and, in all instances, the official
languages of the different countries were considered as official and work languages of what
today is known as the European Union. Because of further increment of members, the European Union now has 11 official and work languages which are: German, French,
English, Danish, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and Swedish. The
incorporation of 10 new members has already been approved. This means the introduction
of 9 more official languages: Slovenian, Slovak, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian,
Polish, Czech, and Maltese. These new incorporations shall bring the number of official
The obligation to translate all documents from written or spoken interventions into all
official languages results not only in an enormous amount of work, done by fully dedicated translators, but also in huge economic costs. Successive incorporations will largely increase
these inconveniences. The issue of giving all languages the same status as official and work
languages, with all the translating this implies, has always been present to a certain degree in
the Union. However, the incorporation of new members has brought this problem to the fore, provoking fierce and passionate arguments. Before we deal with them, it is advisable
to remember that when it comes to it, the identification between official and work
3.- USE OF LANGUAGES IN PRACTICE
In fact, to fully comply with the identification between official and work language, it would
mean that all civil servants of the Union were able to use all the languages of the member
states. This, as it is publicly known does not happen, civil servants must only be able to
speak one language of the European Union, apart from his /her mother tongue. Since the beginning of the Union, the thought of this impossibility led each of the Institutions and
Organizations within the Union to adopt a particular set of language related rules and
Let us take as an example, according to its internal rules, what happens at the European Commission, the executive organ with the most activity and the largest number of civil
servants. At the Commission, any proposal is first formulated in any of the languages and
this language will be mainly used in the negotiation of the proposal, but shorter versions of
the proposals will be translated into all the other languages at a later stage, in such a way that when the time for final discussion arrives at the Commissioners’ meetings, proposals
are available in all languages. The rest of internal activities in the Commission are carried
out in English or French and some in German. Regarding external meetings, when they
have an official character, or are attended by State representatives, it is quite common for these to insist on all dissertations and documents being translated into their own language,
however in practice easier solutions must be sought for. In fact, at meetings between
personal representatives of the Commission and those of the private sector, the language
better known to participants is used, usually either French or English.
The rest of Union organizations normally have more defined work languages. The
European Court of Justice uses in each trial the language of the country or citizen starting
the process, nevertheless the language they use is basically French. The Court of Auditors
uses French, English and German as work languages. The Patents Bureau uses French, English, German, Spanish and Italian. Finally, The European Central Bank, the last
institution created by the Union, and although located in Frankfurt, exclusively uses
The text of a recent publication of the Commission can serve as a summary of the aforesaid:
“ For the good functioning of the Commission, communication within Europe is a priority.
Official documents and general information bulletins about the Union are done in the
eleven official languages of the Union, so that every citizen has access to the information which might directly affect him/her. Every citizen has the right to address the Commission
in his /her mother tongue. As the microcosm of the Union that it is, the Commission has
native speakers of all official languages, apart from others. Since it is unrealistic to expect
that every civil servant speaks all the languages, a compromise must be reached. Within the Commission and in practice, all internal documents are normally done in three languages:
English, French and German. It is quite frequent for civil servants to speak at least one of
them, also they are the languages normally used in internal meetings”. At the service of the
. European Commission Publication 2003 ISBN 92-894-4011-2.
4.- THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE
When it comes to discussing possible changes, there seems to be a general agreement about
the will to continue to use all official languages in certain contexts including the
aforementioned-, but on some other occasions, it would be advisable to use the languages defined as work languages. The differences of opinion come about when the time to decide
which languages should be used arrives. The following would be opposite points of view:
First there are those who, in private, never in public, believe that since English has become
a kind of lingua franca
, the European Union should recognise this status and adopt it as the sole work language. However, this view has no chance of success as neither has the view of
those who suggest using a neutral language such as Esperanto.
A more reasonable view is found in the proposal to adopt both English and French as
work languages, a solution which if adopted years ago, for instance in 1958 when the
Treaty of Rome was signed, nobody would be arguing about it now. Today it seems
impossible for Germany to accept this view, when in fact German is the language spoken by the most people in the EU. To this we must add the outstanding role Germany plays in
European Union policies. Bearing this in mind, to adopt English, French, and German as
work languages would appear to be the most feasible proposal. Some of the member states
would be willing to accept it, however, the Treaty of Rome established that the linguistic regime of the Union should be decided upon unanimously. Regarding this problem, there
are some Member States which have decided against any change in the status quo.
Therefore what it is likely to happen is that despite the difficulties posed by the
enlargement of the Union with new members, the situation will not change.
But it also seems possible that at some point in the future common sense will prevail and
that work languages will be reduced to three or two. If this is the case, the radical difference
now made between official and non-official languages -or between regional and minority
languages, to use Union’s terminology -could be toned down and these last ones used as a means of communication in the Union or as target actions, as we shall see next.
5.- TARGET ACTIONS OF THE UNION IN FAVOUR OF LANGUAGES
Although when we speak of linguistic matters and the European Union it immediately
comes to mind the distinction between official languages and work languages, as we saw earlier, the truth is that the language policy of the EU must be understood primarily in
actions taken in favour of languages. As it is commonly known, the EU maintained from
its beginnings that it would keep and defend the linguistic and cultural diversity of the
continent, and for some time now, it also proposes as a target that Europeans shall be able to speak two foreign languages.
For this purpose, the Commission has taken a number of steps to encourage the teaching
of foreign languages in the countries belonging to the Union, understanding by foreign
languages those spoken in other countries of the Union. Today these initiatives are concentrated in the Socrates
programme, with sub-programmes such as Lingua, Leonardo
dedicated to professional teaching- and Erasmus -
promoting university exchanges-. To be
able to understand the content of these programmes, we shall have to take into account
that member states having given up some of their sovereignty in economic matters, to the
point of renouncing to have their own currency, are surprisingly jealous of their educational
matters. Under no circumstances they would allow any interference on the part of the
Union in educational and formation programmes. Under these conditions, the Commission
restricts itself to subsidizing foreign language teachers’ stays in other countries as well as school exchanges, and also to initiatives and projects which might imply a significant
pedagogic advance leaving up to the governments the decision of further development.
It would be unfair not to recognize the effort made in this direction. Every year there are
tens of thousands of both teachers and students who have the opportunity of spending some time abroad practicing a language. A different question would be to think that this
practice has influenced either the organization or language teaching methodologies.
From the point of view we are interested in, the important thing would be to ask whether
the linguistic programmes of the Union contribute to keep and strengthen linguistic plurality in Europe. We can hardly find a positive answer. Although in the presentation of
programmes the importance of representation of the least taught languages is clearly stated,
the fact is that the majority of teachers and students travel to countries where the most
popular languages are spoken, also most of the sponsored projects are destined to these languages. The few data published in this respect show that the most frequent exchanges
are with countries where English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian are spoken, in this
order of preference, which coincides with the same order that these languages are
represented in the education systems of European countries. Simply said, regarding language diversity, what the Union target actions do is to reinforce the existing trends in
the teaching of foreign languages business.
Going a step further, we should say that the linguistic plurality in Europe is not limited to
the official languages of the Member States, there are also those languages which the Commission describes as “regional and minority languages”. There is mute silence on the
part of the high ranking representatives of the Union in this respect. The exception to the
rule comes from the European Parliament, which on different occasions has shown its
interest in these languages and has urged the Commission to take measures in their favour. As a response to this concern the Commission has taken certain steps. It has promoted the
drafting about the situation these languages are in, the last example of these is the Mosaic
Report, published in 2000. It has sponsored the work of an enterprise created to divulge
and promote the situation of these languages: the “European Bureau for the Least Spoken Languages”, and, finally for a period of time some pedagogic activities in these languages
were subsidized. However, these activities were put on hold when legal consultants from
the Commission had their doubts about the possibility of justifying these activities with the
Foundation Treaty Act in their hands. It can therefore be said that from the very beginning
the European Union shows a constant ambiguity in their defence of multilingual Europe. On the one hand, they defend this multilingual situation as a cultural asset in itself, but on
the other hand their actions show that they identify linguistic pluralism with the official
languages of the Member States. As the last and most blatant ambiguity shown by the
Union was the recent celebration of the year 2002 as the “Year of the Languages”. From the outset and in the different activities held all kinds of languages were present and the
final summary insisted on this linguistic plurality, but in fact when this new momentum was
to be translated into new initiatives, the only reference to other languages was to propose a
new version of the Mosaic Report, while programmes such as Socrates will exclusively be open to the official languages of Member States.
There still something else, nowadays Europe’s linguistic plurality cannot be reduced to
official, “regional and minority” languages. Increasingly, the languages of immigrants also
are part of the scenario, as clearly showed the “Year of the Languages”. The European Parliament has also been the only institution to show their worry for this concern, but so
far the Commission has had no reaction at this point in time. The real truth is that the
European Union, despite the serious problems immigration pose, has not been able to
formulate a common policy on the subject. It is hardly strange that in this situation they have not dared to approach linguistic aspects.
6.- LANGUAGES AND COMPUTER PROGRAMMES
For a language to be able to survive in time it is necessary that this language is taught.
Nowadays, however, the arrival of IT technologies has brought with it a new element which makes us think that in the future only those languages with some kind of presence in
these technologies will be able to survive. This means that in order to survive the various
languages shall have to be present in them.
Although, at the beginning this was not a priority, the Union soon had to deal with this presence in the technologies because of the need for translations. The Union has
developed the Systrans Programme, a very efficient tool with the handicap that it only
translates into and from English and French, which, of course, are the most frequent
translations done for the Union. But in order to support linguistic plurality it seems
necessary the use of these tools precisely to help minority languages achieve higher levels
of development, both facilitating automatic translations and other computer programming,
as well as their launching on the Internet.
7.- LINGUISTIC RIGHTS AND DUTIES
The co-existence of languages poses even deeper questions than the convenience of
spreading their use and learning. To what extent do the speakers of any particular language
-in individual or collective terms- have the right to use their language, and who decides to
guarantee this right? On this issue the European Council was also quicker than the Union. In 1991 the Council passed the “European Charter for the Regional and Minority
Languages”. It seems feasible that the Union might include a similar compromise with the
conditions attached to become a new member. This compromise would not only be
directed to speakers of minority or official languages, but to all those who speak an official language in a different country, normally a neighbouring country, but who make up a
linguistic minority. Such situations are specially common in Eastern Europe and more
concretely in countries about to join the Union.
To these collective situations, which sometimes have very deep historical roots, we must add the issues which might result from the very founding of the European Union. As we
know, the EU guarantees the right of free movement of peoples and goods between
member states; this movement can raise various questions as well as legal conflicts, of
which three are plenty of examples. One of them would be the case of an EU citizen who stays in a different EU country and has the right to vote in local elections. To what extent
should he/she be obliged to know the language of the country where he/she has settled?
Should he/she be obliged to speak the language to take up certain jobs, or be able to work
in certain professions which might demand the knowledge of the language in question?. What about the movement of goods? To what extent should a product made in one
country give information details in the language of the country where it will be sent? What
should happen in the case of machinery? Should the handbook be translated into the
languages of the country of destination?. Finally, the so-called cultural exception: what should be done about cultural, informative or recreational products? Should local languages
A POSSIBLE LINGUISTIC POLICY FOR THE EU
All the aforesaid point to what the linguistic policy of the EU might be, coherent with its
1.- The EU should clearly state its commitment to the conservation of the linguistic plurality of Europe, of all languages not only the official languages of Member States.
2.- This statement of commitment should be linked to non-discrimination policies and
human rights. For this purpose, Member states should clearly state the individual and
collective specific linguistic rights they are committed to.
3.- Target actions of the EU in favour of language teaching and learning should be directed
towards the strengthening and conservation of languages despite market trends.
4.- The EU should have as an important objective to encourage and facilitate the
incorporation of all languages to IT technologies, automatic translation and presence on the Internet.
5.- Finally, bearing in mind that the mere existence of the Union and the right of
movement of peoples and goods can cause new and potentially conflictive language
problems, the laws applicable to these situations should be systematized in the shape of a charter of linguistic rights and duties for citizens of the EU.
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